By: Maria Rahmandar, MD, Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine
For decades we had seen a dramatic decrease in teen tobacco use, but since the introduction of vaping devices, as a clinician I have personally seen the use of electronic cigarettes among my adolescent patients skyrocket.
Recent national surveys show a plateauing or slight decrease in teen e-cigarette use in 2020, but we are still seeing epidemic levels of youth use with 1 in 5 high school students using e-cigarettes. Teens are still being drawn to flavored products with youth-friendly flavorings, such as bubble gum, mango, mint & menthol, are primary components that attract teens to these products, as well as perpetuate racial health inequities through targeted marketing of mentholated products to Black Americans. E-cigarette companies have a track record of also marketing to youth through sexy advertising campaigns and colorful packaging that sometimes includes cartoons and names, such as Unicorn Vomit.
On a weekly basis, I am seeing teens who want to quit vaping but cannot stop using these powerful devices. I have a 19-year-old patient who had started vaping supposedly nicotine-free flavored e-juice when he was 17, but over the course of a few weeks, he had transitioned to nicotine-containing products, and was even bringing his vaping device to school to use between classes. This story is not unique to this patient or even my clinic. Despite Tobacco 21 legislation, e-cigarette devices continue to be easily accessible to teens.
Many youth inaccurately believe that when they use electronic cigarettes that they are simply inhaling a "harmless water vapor." Unfortunately, this couldn't be further from the truth--what they're inhaling is a chemical-filled aerosol with tiny particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs.
The long-term health consequences of inhaling the chemicals in e-cigarettes and other vaping devices is still largely unknown since these products are so new. What we do know, is that the developing teenage brain is particularly susceptible to becoming addicted to the nicotine found in these devices.
In fact, research shows that 90% of adults who use tobacco started it using during adolescence. We do not need to wait decades like we did with traditional cigarettes to find out all the horrifying health consequences before taking action.
Our job is to support and protect our youth. By allowing companies to continue to make and market tobacco products attractive to our teenagers, we are creating a whole new generation of people addicted to nicotine, who will be more likely to use traditional cigarettes in the future. And when it comes to cigarettes, there is no debate about the extremely negative health risks associated with their use.