By Kathy Hubbard
The conversation was about what drugs we were exposed to when we were young compared to what’s available to teens today. One adult spoke of drinking beer, most of us admitted to smoking cigarettes, and because we were all young during the summer of love, we talked about marijuana (some of them inhaled).
When we asked the young people at the dinner table what they and their peers are most apt to try, the answer wasn’t meth, it wasn’t cocaine, it was e-cigarettes. They said that vaping was becoming more and more popular and that most kids didn’t think it was harmful and that actually, most thought it was pretty cool.
Is it? We all know people who’ve stopped smoking cigarettes in favor of vaping, but it seems that the long-term effects aren’t well known or well documented, most likely because vaping hasn’t been around that long.
The first commercially successful electronic cigarette was created in China in 2003 by a pharmacist, inventor and smoker after his father, also a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer. They were introduced to the U.S. market in 2007.
If you don’t know what they are, e-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that heat a liquid and turn it into an aerosol to be inhaled. “The solutions in e-cigarettes typically contain vegetable glycerin or propylene glycol as the main ingredients, along with nicotine, flavorings and other additives,” Mayo Clinic explains.
One report I read said that there are over 7,700 flavors with names like Banana Nut Bread, Gummi Bear, Smurf Cake and Unicorn Milk. Who wouldn’t think their marketing isn’t geared towards young people? And, the most commonly added ingredient is nicotine. And, we all know, or should know how addictive nicotine is (as in more so than cocaine).
“Once you become dependent on nicotine, it’s extremely difficult to stop using it. Attempts to quit using nicotine can led to various symptoms, such as strong cravings, anxiety, irritability, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, depressed mood, frustration, anger, increased hunger, insomnia, constipation or diarrhea,” Mayo says. “Studies have shown that long-term e-cigarette smokers are exposed to as much nicotine as individuals who smoke regular cigarettes.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services didn’t mince words. They say that e-cigarette use poses a significant, and avoidable, health risk to young people in the United States.
“Besides increasing the possibility of addiction and long-term harm to brain development and respiratory healthy, e-cigarette use is associated with the use of other tobacco products that can do even more damage to the body. Even breathing e-cigarette aerosol that someone else has exhaled poses potential health risks.”
This is scary stuff. Besides nicotine, e-cigarettes contain “flavoring such diacetyl, a chemical linked to a serious lung disease; volatile organic compounds such as benzene, which is found in car exhaust; and heavy metals, such as nickel, tin, and lead,” HHS says.
“Until about age 25, the brain is still growing. Each time a new memory is created or a new skill is learned, stronger connections – or synapses – are built between brain cells. Young people’s brains build synapses faster than adult brains. Because addiction is a form of learning, adolescents can get addicted more easily than adults,” HHS explains.
“Youth and young adults are also uniquely at risk for long-term, long-lasting effects of exposing their developing brains to nicotine. These risks include nicotine addiction, mood disorders, and permanent lowering of impulse control. Nicotine also changes the way synapses are formed, which can harm the parts of the brain that control attention and learning.”
You know what you can do. You can start the conversation with your teenager by explaining your concerns. You can start by asking if they or any of their friends have tried e-cigarettes and whether or not usage has become habitual. HHS suggests that you be patient and ready to listen rather than preparing to give a lecture.
If you’re stumped for words, talk to your child’s primary care provider and ask for help in explaining the risks of vaping. The best way to stop any bad habit is to not start it. Let’s prevent our youth from risking their health.
Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.