Protecting your teen from unhealthy trends has never been easy, but today it seems like there are more threats to be aware of than ever before. For the past several years, vaping has been on the rise among teenagers, and the trend is alarming. Research from 2019 indicates that more than 37 percent of high school seniors reported vaping within the past 12 months — a steep increase from around 28 percent in 2017.
The U.S. Surgeon General, Jerome M. Adams, has gone so far as to declare that e-cigarette use among teenagers in America is an epidemic and that we must take action to keep the issue from worsening. As a parent, that means understanding vaping and the effects it can have on your child.
What Is Vaping?
“Vaping” is short for “vaporizing” and is defined as the act of inhaling and exhaling aerosols created by an e-cigarette or other vaping device. One of the most unfortunate misconceptions about vaping is that you’re simply inhaling water vapor. In reality, it’s a fine mist of particles containing chemicals we don’t know very much about.
Vaping was introduced to the U.S. market in 2007 and presented as a healthier alternative to smoking despite there being little to no evidence to back up this claim. Vaping is a more discreet delivery vehicle for consuming nicotine, but those who use them are still at high risk of developing a nicotine addiction.
What Do Vapes Look Like?
The range of different vaping devices is immense. There’s everything from portable, pocket-sized vapes that deliver small quantities of vapor, to almost fist-sized devices called “box mods” that create huge clouds of vapor. Among teens, the smaller pen-style vapes are the most popular as they are easily concealed.
The pen-style vapes may be difficult to spot as they can blend in almost seamlessly with a handful of actual pens and markers. They are designed to be low-profile so that their intended users — adults — can use them without drawing undue attention to themselves or bothering nearby people with smoke. However, teenagers use the design to sneak their vapes into school and hide them at home. Pen-style vapes also include the e-cigarette, which looks almost exactly like a real cigarette made of metal and plastic. Teens don’t use these too often as they are highly conspicuous.
The bigger box mod vapes are meant to be flashy and put on a show. They are usually based on a boxy rectangular shape and come in bright metallic colors. They may have a digital screen on them that displays information about how the device is operating. They’re very bulky and nearly impossible to hide, so teens who are trying to be sneaky with their vaping don’t usually use them. There’s also a middle ground between the two styles, which features a larger battery but is still an elongated cylindrical shape rather than a box.
How Do Vapes Work?
Vaping always involves the heating of a substance in order to release the desired compounds. Nicotine, marijuana or even just flavor cartridges are the substances of choice for teens. While some vapes can work with dry material such as tobacco or cannabis flower, it’s more common for those who vape to use liquids. The term “e-liquid” or “vape juice” specifically refers to a liquid that contains nicotine. The most popular way to vape among teens is to use a device with a cartridge.
A cartridge is a glass or plastic tube containing a solution of nicotine, marijuana or flavoring. At the top of the cartridge tank, there is a mouthpiece where the user inhales, and at the bottom, it has a connector that screws or clicks into the vape’s power source — the battery.
When the cartridge is connected to the battery, heat is delivered from the battery to the cartridge’s atomizer. An atomizer is the element that directly heats the material and causes it to turn into an aerosol. Many vapes use a button to create power delivery, while the more sophisticated models are activated automatically when a user starts to inhale through the mouthpiece.
It’s alarmingly easy to pick up vaping. With the smaller pen-style devices, the learning curve is essentially nonexistent.
What Is the JUUL?
The most commonly-abused vaping system among teens is undoubtedly the JUUL. Its manufacturer calls it a “nicotine-delivery device,” and it is intended to mimic the experience of smoking a cigarette without the appearance or smell of smoking. JUUL devices are particularly insidious when it comes to teens because they look indistinguishable from a USB flash drive at first glance. The devices are designed to be sleek and stylish and fit in the palm of the hand.
The JUUL created a big sensation upon its release in 2015 because, at the time, it was the easiest vape to use. There are no moving parts. You simply take the e-liquid-filled cartridge — called a “pod” — and stick it right into the rechargeable battery. It doesn’t have any settings to fiddle with, enabling discreet use.
According to JUUL itself, the devices are marketed to adults as a way to stop smoking. However, there is mounting evidence that the company acted in bad faith and purposely worked to profit off of marketing that appeals to youth. In 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered JUUL to stop marketing its products as a safe alternative to smoking because it has not provided appropriate proof that this claim is true. The American Heart Association, which pushed for the FDA’s investigation, said in a statement:
“JUUL has preyed upon youth and adolescents with slick marketing that simultaneously suggests e-cigarettes are harmless or less harmful to users and promotes appealing flavors that attract kids. The public saw evidence of this during House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearings in July, when high school students told of JUUL representatives telling them the company’s products are ‘totally safe.’”
As part of ongoing efforts to curb JUUL’s ability to market to youth, the FDA has restricted the sales of all flavored e-juice products in stores where kids under 18 can see them. Only tobacco, mint, menthol or unflavored products can be sold in physical retail locations. The FDA has warned that if rates of teen “JUULing” don’t come down, more drastic action may be taken.
What Are Teens Vaping?
It’s worrisome enough that so many teens are vaping for fun. Looking at the breakdown of what’s in those pods and cartridges clarifies the picture. According to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 66 percent of teens say their vape devices contain “just flavoring.” This may come as something of a relief, but also suggests that vaping is closely tied to appearances and the perception of being cool.
Just over 13 percent of teens say they vape nicotine, 5.8 percent say they’re vaping marijuana and 1.3 percent answered “other.” One of the most disturbing statistics revealed by this study is that 13.7 percent of teens don’t know what’s in their vape. These numbers prove that teens have little idea of what they’re getting themselves into when they pick up this dangerous habit.
The Dangers of Nicotine for Kids and Teens
Nicotine is a dangerous substance for people of all ages. People tend to believe that the danger associated with nicotine consumption is reduced because they are consuming it in a smokeless delivery form. However, there are serious health consequences of using e-cigarettes and vaping, including:
- Insulin resistance leading to type 2 diabetes
- Significantly suppressed appetite
- Raised heart rate and blood pressure
- Lung disease
- Chronic bronchitis
In adolescents and young adults, chronic nicotine exposure also impairs the development of the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is involved in complex behaviors like planning, attention focus and impulse control. Nicotine’s pronounced effect on the prefrontal cortex is part of the reason addiction sets in so quickly in youth.
One study on nicotine addiction in youth followed more than 1,200 sixth graders over four years, monitoring them for 10 symptoms of nicotine addiction as defined by these questions on the Hooked On Nicotine Checklist:
- “Have you ever tried to quit, but couldn’t?”
- “Do you smoke now because it is really hard to quit?”
- “Have you ever felt like you were addicted to tobacco?”
- “Do you ever have strong cravings to smoke?”
- “Have you ever felt like you really needed a cigarette?”
- “Is it hard to keep from smoking in places where you are not supposed to?”
The second part of the checklist then asks the following questions about feelings when someone hasn’t used tobacco in a while or has tried to stop smoking:
- “Did you find it hard to concentrate because you couldn’t smoke?”
- “Did you feel more irritable because you couldn’t smoke?”
- “Did you feel a strong need or urge to smoke?”
- “Did you feel nervous, restless or anxious because you couldn’t smoke?”
Kids who smoked only once a month displayed signs of addiction-like symptoms of withdrawal and cravings for nicotine. The kids who transitioned from smoking less than once a month to smoking once a month became 10 times as likely to become addicted to cigarettes.
Why Nicotine Vaping Is So Addictive
If you believe the makers of JUUL, vaping is a way out of cigarette smoking for adults. This is likely why they sell pods with high nicotine concentrations of five percent or three percent by weight. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, a five percent JUUL pod contains 59 mg per milliliter of liquid — the equivalent of about 20 traditional cigarettes. Even more troubling, 63 percent of youth ages 15 to 24 were unaware that all JUUL products contain nicotine. In combination with the percentage of teens claiming they are vaping flavor only, this shows just how little teens understand about JUUL and other vapes.
Since vaping is easy to hide and doesn’t usually cause significant coughing, teens can do it frequently and constantly. One man, Maxwell Berger, has sued JUUL Labs due to the addiction he developed as a teen in the summer of 2015, immediately following the introduction of the new device. In less than two years of using the device, he was using up to two pods every day. According to Berger, he was taking puffs of his JUUL every 10 minutes.
This massive nicotine intake resulted in a hemorrhagic stroke, requiring three brain surgeries and a hospital stay of more than 100 days. The permanent injuries he sustained from nicotine abuse included:
- Speech impairment
- Left-side paralysis
- 50 percent loss of vision in both eyes
Berger’s suit suggests that he was swayed by JUUL’s marketing tactics and first tried vaping because everyone was doing it. His addiction took only a matter of weeks to develop.
Vaping and Marijuana Use
While nicotine takes most of the spotlight when it comes to teen vaping, parents also need to understand the dangers of marijuana and e-cigarettes. Liquid cannabis concentrate is used in cartridges the same way nicotine e-juice is, and it’s just as easy to hide. Some teens even refill JUUL pods or buy empty pods to fill with marijuana concentrate, allowing them to get high nearly any time or place.
Marijuana use in teens is particularly harmful to the developing brain. Some of the results of teen marijuana use include:
- Difficulty thinking
- Diminished problem-solving skills
- Impaired coordination
- Impaired memory and learning ability
- Reduced attention span and difficulty focusing
Cannabis has also been linked to a wide range of mental health issues. While the research in this area is lacking due to the federal illegality of marijuana, the research we do have shows that the substance affects mental health even if it is not a direct causal element in mental illness. For example, we know that people with anxiety or depression are more likely to self-medicate with drugs like marijuana. We also know that marijuana can worsen mental illnesses.
Because marijuana concentrates contain such high levels of the psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), teens who vape are consuming more of the compound at one time. While the average THC in recreational marijuana hovers around 16 percent, the concentrates teens are vaping can sometimes exceed 80 percent.
Counterfeit and Spiked Vaping Cartridges
In 2019, the problem of fake vape cartridges and cartridges spiked with unknown substances has become a national crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported almost 1,300 cases of severe lung injury associated with use of e-cigarettes and other vaping products, with the death toll rapidly climbing. The common thread in most of these cases is the use of THC vape products, especially those obtained through illegitimate channels.
Vape cartridges bought off the street aren’t tested for toxic chemicals and are often cut with substances like vitamin E oil or even other drugs. Anyone can purchase empty, branded cartridges in bulk and fill them with any substance. Since teens can’t legally obtain marijuana even in states where it has been legalized, they are at a higher risk of purchasing a counterfeit cartridge.
The CDC, faced with mounting numbers of lung injury, has recommended that no one purchase or use any vape products that contain THC. It is also worth noting that some of the individuals with lung injury reported using nicotine exclusively, meaning that nicotine products such as JUUL should not be ruled out as a contributing cause to this worrying outbreak.
Isn’t Vaping Safer Than Cigarettes?
In short, no. This notion comes in part from a perception of vapor as little more than steam with nicotine or marijuana in it. In reality, though, we don’t know how many of the ingredients in vape formulas affect our health. One of the known dangers of vaping is the use of the additives propylene glycol (PG) and vegetable glycerin (VG).
This topic is contentious because both PG and VG are “generally regarded as safe” by the FDA. However, studies that have produced this conclusion only tested the substances in foods. This completely neglects the huge changes that can occur when the chemicals are heated to the point of vaporization. Flavoring compounds have also been found to create toxic effects.
The bottom line is that we simply don’t know enough about vaping products and the myriad of chemicals they contain to make any judgments about long-term safety. In comparison to cigarette smoke, which we have decades of evidence on, vaping may cause less damage. In other words, a heavy smoker might benefit from switching to vaping. But for teens who pick up a JUUL and begin the process of getting addicted to nicotine, the danger is absolutely real.
How Can I Keep My Kids From Abusing Vapes?
There’s no question that more and more kids are succumbing to peer pressure and advertising and starting to vape nicotine or marijuana. As more evidence emerges about the potential consequences, parents need to be equipped to have tough conversations about this epidemic. These three tips will give you a solid jumping-off point for helping your kids steer clear of vape abuse.
1. Gather Resources
If you’re planning to talk to your teen about vaping, you need to be able to prove you know what you’re talking about. Seeking out resources like the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids’ vaping guide for parents is a good place to start. Know your terminology so you can be ready with specific questions and responses for your teen. By demonstrating your knowledge, you make it harder to brush off what you’re saying.
2. Have Conversations
Multiple short conversations about vaping will be more effective than a big, sit-down lecture. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to insert facts and ask your teens’ opinions, from seeing vaping on TV to passing one of the many vape shops you can find anywhere in the country. Open-ended questions like “what do you think about vaping?” present your teen with the opportunity to do some critical thinking, and open the field for you to present crucial facts.
3. Be a Role Model
Teenagers can smell hypocrisy a mile away. Instilling the dangers of vaping in them will be much harder if you smoke or vape yourself. If you do vape, be sure to keep your equipment under lock and key and never vape around your child. Despite their insistence that everything you do is the epitome of uncool, teens truly do pick up on their parents’ habits, and your attitudes toward vaping will likely stick with them for the future.
Signs of Teen Vaping Abuse
It’s not usually easy to tell when kids are abusing vapes until they start displaying serious symptoms. However, there are clues you can spot if you pay attention. If you suspect your teen has begun abusing a nicotine vape, you need to be aware of these signs and symptoms:
- Having an unusually sweet smell about them
- Having bloodshot eyes
- Becoming increasingly irritable
- Getting nosebleeds
- Being thirstier
- Becoming more sensitive to caffeine
- Coughing persistently
If you notice one or more of these signs, especially along with changes in mood or behavior, it’s time to talk to your teen about vaping and how it can endanger their health now and in the future. It’s never easy to have these conversations with your teen, but intervening at the earliest stages can reduce the chances of your child becoming addicted to nicotine or marijuana through the trendy habit of vaping.