A pediatrician reviews the health risks of this disturbing trend.
There is a national concern about vaping, over a thousand people have been hospitalized and several dozen have died across America. While relatively new, the vaping epidemic is also exploding into a very disturbing pediatric health trend. Today, the CDC reports an increasing number of children using these devices. According to the research, 28 percent of high school students and 10 percent of middle-school students are using e-cigarettes. Gov. Mario Cuomo responded to the problem in New York by raising the legal age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21, and by banning the sale of flavored e-cigarettes. However a state court recently halted that ban until the case can be heard by the State Supreme Court later this month.
Initially positioned as a way to help adults quit smoking, vape products now pose serious health concerns for kids. E-cigarettes are alluring to children because they are easy to use, come with a “cool” factor, and are marketed as “safe,” with innocent-sounding flavors such as mango, cotton candy, pineapple and watermelon. The devices are small and often disguised as a USB, pen or other everyday objects. Rechargeable batteries and replaceable cartridges allow users to “customize” delivery; they can use “extra-strength” nicotine, for instance, or adjust the voltage for more a more powerful “hit.”
While much about the long-term effects of this new teen danger are still unknown, the alarming news reports of serious lung complications and death has allowed more information about potential health implications to come to light. Here’s a run-down of the risks parents need to know about:
Nicotine addiction. Some of these pods or cartridges can contain up to 36 mg/milliliters of nicotine each, the equivalent to about a pack a day. That makes them highly addictive, especially in young people. Research has shown that e-cigarettes use in teens is a gateway to smoking the real thing. In one study, high school students who vaped more than seven times were more likely to report using cigarettes in the next six months.
Rewiring the young brain. Nicotine exposure during adolescence can harm the developing prefrontal cortex of the brain – the part that is responsible for controlling emotions and impulses. This part of the brain doesn’t finish developing until about age 25. When exposed to nicotine, the brain tells cells to release special molecules, such as dopamine, which produce a feel-good high. Repeated exposure can change those brain cells, reducing the body’s ability to release its own pleasure-producing chemicals, and increasing the demand for higher levels of nicotine to get the same effects. It can also lead to an impact on learning, memory, and attention.
Vapor exposure. Lungs are designed to inhale one thing: oxygen. Inhaling any other substance is risky and dangerous. Without regulation of the substances in e-cigarette cartridges, we can’t be sure what’s in them. They may contain the marijuana derivatives THC and CBD, as well as carcinogens and other poisons that can cause severe lung damage and death. Some of these toxic chemical substances have been associated with acute eosinophilic/allergic pneumonia. This type of pneumonia can cause severe pulmonary illness and even death.
Explosions and burns. Finally, there have been cases of vape devices blowing up in teens’ pockets and faces, causing burns, facial damage and even breaking bones. No one knows why these devices are combusting, but it may have something to do with the lithium ion batteries or using devices without safety features, such as an automatic shutoff.
One thing is certain: vaping is bad news, and parents need to keep their kids far away from it. To learn more and for help on ways to start a conversation with your kids about about vaping, refer to this tip sheet from the Surgeon General.