What Parents Need to Know About Teens and Vaping

By Rachel Curry

Local experts break down the risks and side effects of e-cigarettes and vaping for teens.

Older generations warn kids about a lot of things. Sometimes genuine concerns can get lost in the noise, but a warning about vaping is worth listening to.

Juul is one brand of e-cigarette that sells flavored pods. If you have a teenager, you’ve probably heard of them—and a February lawsuit in Massachusetts claimed the company targeted young nonsmokers directly, citing advertisements on nick.com and cartoonnetwork.com.

“Juul, more than any other company, bears responsibility for the fact that millions of young people nationwide are now addicted to e-cigarettes,” the lawsuit asserted, “reversing decades of progress in combatting underage tobacco and nicotine use and addiction.”

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Their vapes use leaf-based tobacco and nicotine salts, and the dangers can be greater than you might think.

“Nicotine crosses what we call the blood-brain barrier very easily,” explains pulmonary disease expert Dr. Vinay Maheshwari, vice chair of medicine at ChristianaCare. “Youth and young adults are also uniquely at risk for long-term, long-lasting effects of exposing their developing brains to nicotine. This can include nicotine addiction, mood disorders, and lowering of impulse control. Nicotine also may change how brain synapses are formed, which can harm the parts of the brain that control attention and learning.

“Side effects of vaping can include seizures and other nervous system disorders, and can be cumulative.”

Aside from the dangers of nicotine, unregulated chemicals in vapes are another cause for concern. Anyone can jump online and order empty cartridges ready to be filled with any substance. With no regulation or labeling in this sector, there’s no telling what ingredients vapers are exposing themselves to.

Amid national buzz about vaping-related illnesses, Dr. Maheshwari wants Delaware parents to know this is a local issue, too.

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“We at ChristianaCare have seen a few cases of youth with severe respiratory issues from vaping being admitted to the intensive care unit,” Dr. Maheshwari says.

According to the Center for Drug and Health Studies (CDHS) at the University of Delaware, vaping far exceeds cigarette use among Delaware students. One study shows that of 2,299 11th graders surveyed, 31 percent vaped in the past year, compared with 6 percent who smoked cigarettes.

Despite the fact that 60 percent of students surveyed by CDHS viewed vaping as a risky, about a third of all students still partake. The same study shows that 39 percent of Delaware students who have vaped took their first puff by age 15.

Dr. Maheshwari says that parents of teenagers who vape should be concerned about their children’s still-developing brain.

“I have a teenage son and understand there’s a lot of misconception,” he says. “Parents should be having the same types of conversations as they would about drugs and alcohol.”

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Parents have enough to worry about with tobacco and nicotine. Add a vape to the mix and you’ll have metallic neurotoxicity on your mind, too.

According to Dr. Ana Navas-Acien, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University who recently appeared in the Netflix docuseries Broken, metals like manganese and lead are known neurotoxicants in e-cigarette aerosols. Within a Juul, for example, a metallic coil heats the liquid, soldering joints and other parts of the device, she explains. “As you inhale, you’re consuming metals that leach into the tobacco.”

In the cool-versus-toxic debate, some teens might be getting mixed messages. With 16 percent of students in the state reporting living with an adult who vapes at home, maybe it’s up to the adults to draw the line.

“Vaping is not safe,” Dr. Maheshwari says. “We should treat it as toxic. We have to advocate for our children.”

Published as “Vaping: Cool or Toxic for Teens?” in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of 302Health magazine.

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