What You Need to Know About Vaping
How parents can protect kids from the dangerous ‘alternative’ to smoking
E-cigarettes are like cigarettes for a new generation. The devices produce an aerosol by heating a liquid that usually contains nicotine, flavoring and other chemicals. Users inhale these synthetics into their lungs every time they puff. Because the aerosols are technically vapors, the act of using e-cigarettes is known as vaping. Over the last year, the habit has become particularly prevalent among teenagers; according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s annual National Youth Tobacco Survey, more than one quarter of all high-school students used e-cigarettes in 2018.
Vaping is rife with risks—namely that it’s addicting, and has been known to cause illness and lung disease in users. To date, e-cigarettes have not been approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Diane Tanaka, MD, Medical Director of the Teenage and Young Adult Health Center in the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, says parents should be very cautious when it comes to kids and vaping.
“We consider these e-cigarettes to be gateways to nicotine addiction,” she says. “That alone should give every parent pause.”
Fact vs. Fiction
There are many misconceptions about vaping; most of them stem from the fact that cigarette companies bill e-cigarettes as a safe “alternative” to smoking. The reality: Vaping is neither safe, nor is it really an alternative.
The bigger of the two issues is safety. According to one study, more than 70 percent of teenagers do not believe vaping is dangerous, or that it presents any health hazard. While there has been no conclusive evidence that vaping directly leads to lung disease, a spate of cases in the late summer and early fall of 2019 has prompted a number of medical organizations—including CHLA, the CDC and the California State Department of Health—to recommend avoiding e-cigarettes at all costs. Several states also have instituted bans on flavored vape products, and the Trump administration has said a federal ban may be in the works.
“People are getting inflammation of the lungs, lung disease, and are dying from this,” says Dr. Tanaka. “The way I see it, the message is simple: Young people should stay away.”
Scientists are also finding that e-cigarettes really aren’t that much better than traditional ones.
Sure, e-cigarettes have less nicotine than traditional cigarettes—originally they were designed as aids to help smokers wean themselves off the habit. But multiple analyses of different vaping products have revealed that most e-cigarettes contain addicting ingredients such as nicotine, as well as hard metals and synthetic compounds that could be harmful to our bodies. In particular, the flavoring element diacetyl has been linked to a serious lung disease, and it is suspected to be at the center of the most recent spate of vaping-related illnesses.
Telltale signs your teens are vaping
It can be difficult to determine if your children are using e-cigarettes, as the devices are hard to spot. Some are made to look like regular cigarettes, cigars, or pipes. Others resemble pens, USB sticks or everyday items such as PEZ dispensers. Be on the lookout for just about anything.
Another telltale sign that your child is vaping: Just follow your nose. Because e-cigarettes convert flavored liquids into an aerosol, when users exhale, they blow out big, pungent clouds of smoke. Often these clouds are difficult to hide; even if users blow them out slowly, the stench remains. Many of the most popular e-cigarette flavors smell like scented candle wax. Popular options include cucumber, melon and more.
“Kids like sweet things, and these [e-cigarette] companies are marketing the products in a way that really piques a child’s curiosity,” Dr. Tanaka says. “It’s important to lay down rules early.”
How to talk to your kids about it
Don’t be afraid to talk about vaping with your kids. First, be sure to get the latest and greatest information from the CDC and the U.S. Surgeon General’s office, which publishes a new advisory every year.
Second, be ready to have an open and honest conversation. Wait for a moment when it seems your child will be willing to discuss. Avoid criticism and encourage a dialogue. Take care not to lecture. And spread out the discussion over multiple days if you sense your child’s attention waning.
According to Dr. Tanaka, perhaps the most important step is to ask for support from your primary care physician, clerical leaders, coaches, family members, counselors or other adults your child trusts.
“The bottom line is that these products will impact your children’s ability to learn; they will affect their ability to learn, and negatively affect their memory,” she says. “Often just sharing basic information like that is enough to snap them out of it and get them to stop.”