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 they are rechargeable, easy to hide, and have a quickly disappearing aerosol. Vaping devices can be used for anything from highly-concentrated nicotine, with flavors like mango and blueberry, to potent concentrates of THC (the chemical compound in cannabis (marijuana) that produces the high). The most current U.S. vaping data available (from the 2022 Monitoring the Future Survey) revealed that 20.7% of 12th graders, 14.2% of 10th graders, and 7.1% of 8th graders had vaped in the last 30 days (a marker of “regular” use).
The Missouri state average for 6th to 12th graders vaping within the last 30 days was 11.0%, according to the 2022 Missouri Student Survey. Because of our parents and other caring adults’ commitment to learning and preventing teen vaping in our local area, reported last 30-day use of vapes among 6th to 12th graders in the Kansas City Northland has declined from 9.3% in 2020 to 6.1% in 2022 (Missouri Student Survey).
But our work is still not done. According to the same survey:
What are the Risks to Youth?
There are several risks to vaping for teens. Below are some major ones for caring adults to be concerned about:
Vaping Can Harm Growing Brains
Because the human brain isn’t fully developed until about age 25, the part of the brain that makes decisions and controls impulses is also underdeveloped. This is why tweens, teens, and young adults are more likely to take risks with their health and safety, including vaping nicotine, cannabis, and using other drugs. Adolescents are uniquely vulnerable to the long-term effects of exposing their still-growing brains to nicotine, like permanently lowering impulse control. Because the young brain is still developing, youth build connections (synapses) faster than adult brains. Nicotine alters the way these synapses form, which can harm attention, learning, and memory.
Young People Under Age 25 are More Easily Addicted
Remember, the human brain isn’t fully developed until about age 25, so nicotine can find a foothold in young people faster than adults over 25. The highly addictive nicotine makes its way to the young brain where it causes a release of dopamine, a chemical in the brain that brings pleasure and prompts the young person to keep using nicotine.
From this process, a harrowing fact emerges: 90% of Americans struggling with addiction started using drugs – like nicotine – before age 18. This is why Parent Up is so invested in preventing all youth substance use – we can stop addiction in its tracks before it starts. Consider this hopeful fact: 1 out of 25 Americans who began using substances at age 21 or older have an addiction, compared to 1 in 4 Americans who began using before age 18. If we can delay any substance use until at least age 21 (if not 25), we can prevent addiction.
Vapes are Being Marketed to Youth
Between fun flavors, bright colors, and increased exposure to vaping-related marketing, it is clear that vaping companies are targeting youth. In a study conducted by the Center for Disease Control, 31% of youth cited flavors such as candy or fruit as their main reason for vaping. Due to a 2019 FDA decision, formerly popular companies such as Juul are banned from selling flavored nicotine cartridges. Read more about JUUL’s early marketing tactics towards youth here. This ban has shifted companies like Puff Bar, Vuse, and Hyde towards producing disposable vaping devices which allow them to continue targeting youth with appealing flavors and brightly colored, discreet devices. These same enticing qualities are also being applied to other forms of nicotine such as gum, tablets, and pouches.
The integration of vaping ads into daily activities and the use of social media platforms amplify youth exposure to these harmful products. According to results from the 2021 National Youth Tobacco Survey, 70.3% of middle and high school students reported seeing vaping ads at retail stores, on the Internet, in newspapers/magazines, or on television and streaming services. Vaping companies are also leveraging social media platforms and encouraging peer-to-peer advertising through influencers and interactive social media content. The 2021 National Youth Tobacco Survey found that 73.5% of middle and high schoolers have seen vaping related posts and content on social media.
Teen Vaping Can Lead to Cigarette Smoking and Other Substance Use
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 tenth 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, of the students who said they hadn’t tried vaping, less than 1% reported having smoked one day a month at the end of the study.
The use of substances such as nicotine, especially early in adolescence, may lead to the use of multiple substances to increase experimentation, risk-taking, and sensation-seeking behaviors in youth and adolescents. Another meta-analysis of several studies found that adolescents who vaped were 6.5 times more likely to drink alcohol and meet the criteria of drunkenness and binge-drinking. They also identified a correlation between vaping nicotine and cannabis use, citing a national study among high school students that found that almost 40% of current vape users also used them to vape THC (the active ingredient in cannabis that creates the “high”).
How Can Adults Help Prevent Teen Vaping?
In order to protect our kids and teens from vaping, Parent Up encourages adults to CARE, CONNECT, COMMUNICATE and pay CAREFUL ATTENTION. While this strategy is no guarantee, if implemented consistently and with intention, the likelihood of kids 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 our kids and teens from engaging in any substance use. Remember that parents and caring adults can have the greatest influence over youth 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 can be tricky conversations and difficult situations to navigate, but a little work on the front end can protect your child’s brain, 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 parents and caring adults in their lives.
Connect Action Steps:
- This TED Talk explores practical ideas for anyone who wants to create connections with kids.
- Meaningful Meals Kit: Kids who have meals with their family on a regular basis are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, including substance use! Our Tools page here at Parent Up has a great kit with tools, tips, and resources to help parents and caring adults make meals more meaningful with kids and teens. Utilizing this kit can help maximize the benefits of regular family meals, which includes reducing the likelihood of teen vaping!
- 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 their suggestions and help them think through some ideas.
Teaching kids and teens about the impact of vaping on their developing brains and bodies, 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 parents 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 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. You are building a foundation for a relationship with kids and teens that is honest, trusting, and open, which is an important protective factor to safeguard them 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.
- Use our handy Communication Guides to learn what is age-appropriate for the vaping talk.
- 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 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.
- Keep an eye out for 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 of Teen 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 increasing liquid consumption (and urination), 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 very vulnerable to the long-lasting effects of these drugs. 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. Support your child on their cessation journey. There is cessation help available specifically for teens from the Truth Initiative’s This Is Quitting. Teens can text “BREAKFREE” to 88709 for free tips and quitting advice, straight to their phone.
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 the Partnership to End Addiction
- A helpful infographic from the National Youth Tobacco Survey (2020)
- E-Cigarettes and Young People from the US Surgeon General
- Tools, Resources and Information to promote health and fight nicotine addiction from the Truth Initiative
- A Campaign to Educate about Vaping from Tobacco Free California
- Another Interesting Campaign About Vaping, Youth, and Flavorings from Tobacco Free California
- Resources on Vaping and E-cigarettes from the CDC
- The Vaping/Marijuana Connection by the National Institute on Drug Abuse
- 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.