Vaping is the act of inhaling and exhaling an aerosol, often referred to as vapor, produced by a vape or e-cigarette. Vapes and e-cigarettes are the same thing, though youth tend to use the term “vapes” instead of “e-cigarettes.” Vaping has become more popular among teens than regular cigarettes, especially given that vaping devices can be used for anything from highly-concentrated nicotine flavors like mango, blueberry, or tutti frutti, to potent concentrates of THC (the chemical compound in marijuana that produces the high). The most current U.S. data vaping available (from the Monitoring the Future 2019 Survey Results) revealed that:
The Missouri state average for 6th to 12th graders vaping within the last 30 days was 15.5%, according to the 2020 Missouri Student Survey. Because of our parents’ commitment to learning and preventing youth vaping in our local area, reported last 30-day use of vapes among 6th to 12th graders in Clay County has declined from 11.1% in 2018 to 7.9% in 2020 (Missouri Student Survey). But our work is still not done. According to the same survey, more than 1 in 4 students also reported that it was “cool” for their peers to vape, and almost 1 in 3 students reported that vapes were “easy to get,” and more than 1 in 4 students reported that they don’t see “vaping” as harmful.
What are the Risks to Youth?
There are several risks to vaping for teens. Below are some major ones for parents to be concerned about:
Vaping Poses Risks to Your Child’s Brain
“The part of the brain that’s responsible for decision making and impulse control is not yet fully developed during adolescence. Young people are more likely to take risks with their health and safety, including use of nicotine and other drugs. 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.” – U.S. Surgeon General, Jerome Adams, M.D.
Young People Under Age 25 are More Easily Addicted
“How does the nicotine in e-cigarettes affect the brain? 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. The nicotine in e-cigarettes and other tobacco products can also prime the adolescent brain for addiction to other drugs such as cocaine.” – U.S. Surgeon General, Jerome Adams, M.D.
Vaping is Linked to Other Risky Behaviors
“E-cigarette use among youth and young adults is strongly linked to the use of other tobacco products, such as regular cigarettes, cigars, hookah, and smokeless tobacco. Some evidence suggests that e-cigarette use is linked to alcohol use and other substance use, such as marijuana. And certain e-cigarette products can be used to deliver other drugs like marijuana.” – U.S. Surgeon General, Jerome Adams, M.D.
Teen Vaping Can Lead to Cigarette Smoking
In a meta analysis of six studies, the findings concluded that the risk of smoking increases four times for teens that vape compared to their non-vaping peers. In another study of more than 2,000 10th graders, researchers found that one in five teens who reported a regular vaping habit at the start of the study smoked traditional cigarettes at least three times a month by the end of the study period. Another 12% of routine vapers smoked at least one day a month. By comparison, less than 1% of students who didn’t try vaping reported not smoking even one day a month at the end of the study.
Vapes are Being Marketed to Our Youth
With lots of flavors available for vaping liquids, as well as the variety of colors and discreetly-sized devices available that charge just like cell phones, it’s clear that vaping products are often marketed to teens. One of the slang terms for vaping, known as JUULing (“jeweling”), comes from the JUUL brand device that looks more like a flash drive than a vaping device. Read more about JUUL’s early marketing tactics towards youth (Forbes, November 2018). The most recent vape of choice for teens has been the discreet and disposable Puff Bar.
Vaping is also often sold as a “safer” alternative to cigarettes, and some teens are under the false assumption that just because vapes don’t contain tobacco they’re safe for teens to use. In fact, many youth are under the false impression that they are just vaping flavored water, decreasing the perception that vaping is harmful. With these low perceptions of harm, teens get hooked on vaping for many reasons, including trying to deal with stress, depression, and anxiety, or just because they’re bored or curious.
What Can Parents Do?
In order to protect your child from vaping, Parent Up encourages parents to CARE, CONNECT, COMMUNICATE and pay CAREFUL ATTENTION. While this strategy is no guarantee, if implemented consistently and with intention, the likelihood of your child engaging in any substance use is much lower.
Educate yourself and others about the harmful effects of teen vaping (and all drug use) on the developing brain and make it a priority to protect your child from engaging in any substance use. Remember that you have the greatest influence over your child’s engagement in substance use. Start early and let your child know you care about their health and safety, and that you are speaking from a place of concern, love, and support. These are tricky conversations and difficult situations to navigate with your kids, but a little work on the front end can protect your child’s health and safety for years to come.
Care Action Steps:
- Learn more about how dopamine and drugs like nicotine impact the vulnerable adolescent brain.
- Educate yourself about vaping so you can be on the lookout and equipped with reliable information.
- Learn more about how nicotine use during the crucial years of adolescence can result in addiction, and lead to lifelong struggles with impulsivity and attention.
Connection is key to prevention. Kids that have stable, consistent, and healthy relationships with adults are more likely to make safer decisions and live healthier lives. It’s important that parents, and other caring adults, take time to listen, pay attention, spend time, and follow up with the kids in their lives. When kids feel valued, they better understand their feelings and are more willing to listen to you.
Connect Action Steps:
- This TED Talk explores practical ideas for anyone who wants to create connections with kids.
- Eat Meals Together: Kids who have dinner with their family on a regular basis are less likely to engage in risky behaviors.
- Set aside regular one-on-one time with your child to bond and have fun together.
- Brainstorm together to identify healthy ways to manage the stress in their life (like getting more sleep, going outdoors, having “unplugged” time from the internet, etc.). Be open to your child’s suggestions and help them think through some ideas.
Teaching your child about the impact of vaping on their developing brain and body, and setting clear expectations and rules is crucial to the Parent Up strategy. Without these expectations, rules, and consequences, youth are much more likely to vape or try other drugs. Parent Up encourages you to start these conversations as early as age 8. Having open and honest conversations about this topic is important for preventing youth use.
Make it clear to your child that you don’t approve of them vaping, but be curious and open-minded about their experiences. Ask them questions about what they think about it. Ask them what they know or what they’ve heard about vaping. It’s more important – and effective– to listen and discuss rather than to lecture. Resist interrogating or threatening your child. You are building a foundation for a relationship with your child that is honest, trusting, and open, which is an important protective factor to safeguard your child from all substance use.
Communicate Action Steps:
- Take a stand and let your child know you disapprove of all vaping, drug use, or alcohol use, no exceptions. Explain to them that vaping is harmful to their developing brains and can lead to lifelong addiction.
- Review and keep these conversation goals in mind as you’re talking with your child.
- Use teachable moments when watching movies, tv, and commercials together that feature vaping.
- Learn what to say and what to do based on the age of your child in our Communication Guides.
- Use some of these conversation starters and start an open dialogue about vaping with your child. Do more listening than talking.
- Do you have friends who vape?
- What do you think about vaping?
- Have you heard about the chemicals that they are finding in vapes?
- If you ever have any questions about vaping, you can come to me.
- I want you to know that I am concerned about your growing brain so I really don’t want you to vape.
As a general practice, know where your kids are at, who they are with, and be sure to check in when they get home. Watch for any early signs or symptoms of vape or nicotine use and be on alert for changes in behaviors, friend groups, or attitudes.
Careful Attention Action Steps:
- Do some research on what vapes and e-cigarettes look like, and which ones are most likely to be used by teens.
- Finding vaping equipment or related product packaging: See something you don’t recognize in the trash? Is your child carrying an unfamiliar device? It’s time to start asking questions and doing research to identify the object.
- Unfamiliar online purchases or packages: Today, many youth buy vapes and e-juices online, so if there’s unfamiliar charges on a card or odd-looking packages coming to your home, you will want to investigate.
- Build your skills in communication and setting limits through this free course.
Warning Signs that Your Child May Be Vaping:
- Pleasant smell: Youth are more drawn to fruity or sweet flavors in vapes than flavors that mimic tobacco. By design, the more discreet vaping products don’t produce a lot of aerosol or scent. The smell is also faint, but if you catch an aroma of bubble gum or watermelon, it might be a sign that someone is vaping nearby.
- Increased thirst or nose bleeds: Vaping removes hydration from the skin of the mouth and throat, leaving a dry, flat palate. If you see your child increasing their liquid consumption (and urinating more), this may be a sign of vaping. Just like vaping dries the mouth, it dries the skin of the nose too. When the nose is too dry, it can bleed, which might be another clue.
- Decreased caffeine use: The combination of vaping nicotine and drinking caffeine can cause anxiety and severe mood swings. Many vape users will decrease their caffeine intake to avoid these side effects.
If you think your child is vaping (as angry or frustrated as you feel), keep reminding yourself to speak and listen from a place of love, support and concern. Explain to them that young people who use nicotine or THC products in any form, including in vapes, are uniquely at risk for long-lasting effects. Because these substances affect the development of the brain’s reward system, continued use can lead to addiction (the likelihood of addiction increases considerably for those who start young), as well as other health problems.
You want your child to be as healthy as possible. Find out why vaping might be attractive to your child, and work with them to replace it with a healthier behavior. There is also cessation help available specifically for teens at My Life My Quit.
Worried your child may be vaping?
- A Great Conversation Guide for Parents from American Lung Association
- How to Talk to your Kids about Vaping Guide from Partnership for Drug Free Kids
- A helpful infographic from the National Institute on Drug Abuse on Teens and E-cigarettes
- E-Cigarettes and Young People from the US Surgeon General
- Tools, Resources and Information to promote health and fight nicotine addiction from the Truth
- A Campaign to Educate about Vaping from Tobacco Free California
- Another Interesting Campaign About Vaping, Youth, and Flavorings
- Resources on Vaping and E-cigarettes from the CDC
- Vaping Marijuana: What You Should Know from Just Think Twice (by the National Institute on Drug Abuse)
- A Great Resource for Health Teachers on Vaping from Stanford University
- Vaping: The Hit Your Brain Takes (2 minutes)
From the Addiction Policy Forum, this video debunks common myths about vaping and summarizes the science on the harms of adolescent e-cigarette use.
- Brain Development for Teens (3 minutes)
The National Institute on Drug Abuse explores the intriguing similarities between the processes of brain development and computer programming. The analogy helps us understand why toxic environmental factors like drugs can have such a long-lasting impact on a teenager’s life. This analogy can be used to empower your children or students with information they need to make better decisions.
- The Reward Circuit: How the Brain Responds to Natural Rewards & Drugs (2 minutes)
Feeling pleasure motivates us to repeat behaviors that are critical to our existence. The limbic system is activated by healthy, life-sustaining activities such as eating and socializing—but it is also activated by substance use, which is why drugs can hijack this circuit and lead to a compulsive cycle of drug use and, in many cases, addiction.
- The Swiss Cheese Model of Drug Addiction (2 minutes)
The National Institute on Drug Abuse introduces The Swiss Cheese Model of Drug Addiction. This model helps us understand why not everyone who uses drugs becomes addicted and why it is currently not possible to predict who will.