E-cigarettes. E-cigs. Vapes. Vape pens. Mods. E-hookahs. Vaping devices have many names and come in different styles, but no matter what they’re called or how they look, their popularity is growing. In fact, e-cigs have become the most commonly used tobacco product in the US among young people. According to the National Youth Tobacco Survey, from 2011 to 2018 current e-cigarette use among high school students increased from 1.5% (220,000 students) to 20.8% (3.05 million students). During the same time period, current e-cigarette use among middle school students increased from 0.6% (60,000 students) to 4.9% (570,000 students). In 2016, about 3% of adults in the US were current e-cigarette users.
Behind at least some of these numbers is a belief that vaping is relatively risk free. Though the safety of e-cigarettes has not been fully studied and the long-term health risks are not known, growing evidence shows that the use of e-cigs may be linked to some health risks. Read on to learn more.
How do vaping devices work?
Vaping is the act of inhaling an aerosol (which many people think of as a vapor) produced by an e-cigarette or similar device. To create this aerosol, a vaping device uses a battery to heat up the contents in the e-cigarette, which may include nicotine, flavorings, and other additives. Vaping devices can look like cigarettes, pens, or a USB flash drive for a computer.
What are the risks of vaping?
Scientists are still learning the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes in people who vape and in people who inhale aerosol vapors secondhand. However, nicotine—whether from a vaping device or a tobacco product—is highly addictive and can lead to serious health issues for developing fetuses, adolescents and young adults, and pregnant women. It is toxic to infants and children if ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through skin.
In addition to nicotine, the aerosol may also contain:
- Very fine particles that are inhaled deeply into the lungs.
- Flavoring agents, such as diacetyl, which are linked to lung disease.
- Cancer-causing chemicals.
- Heavy metals such as nickel, tin, and lead.
- Volatile organic compounds. (Gases that may have harmful effects on people who are exposed to them.)
Vaping may also expose people to other potential dangers, including injuries and fires from defective batteries that may explode (especially during recharging).
The US Surgeon General warns that young people who vape or who are exposed to secondhand vaping aerosols may be putting themselves at risk for serious health issues.
Vaping and adolescents, teens, and young adults
Adolescents, teens, and young adults are especially at risk from the harmful effects of vaping. For example: The younger a person is when he or she uses nicotine, the greater the risk of addiction. This is because their brains keep developing until age 25, so they are more vulnerable to the effects of addictive chemicals.
Nicotine can also interfere with brain development. The parts of the brain that control attention, learning, mood, and impulse control can be harmed by the use of nicotine during adolescence.
Furthermore, there is substantial evidence that e-cigarettes may actually be a gateway to tobacco products, including combustible tobacco cigarettes, for teens and preteens. In one study, high school students who used e-cigarettes were more likely to start smoking cigarettes and other smokable tobacco products within the next year compared with those who hadn’t used e-cigarettes. Another study showed that high school students who used e-cigarettes in the previous month were more than 7 times more likely to smoke tobacco cigarettes than students who did not use e-cigarettes.
Can vaping help a person quit tobacco products?
There is limited evidence overall that e-cigarettes are effective aids in smoking cessation. In a study of more than 800 people, only about 9% of those who said they were using e-cigarettes to help them stop smoking traditional cigarettes reported having quit when asked a year later.
What you can do
Parents and caregivers can take action to help their children avoid vaping or to stop if they’ve already started. This includes:
- Setting a good example by being tobacco-free and by keeping a smoke-free home.
- Talking with your child about the risks of vaping. Consider making an appointment with your child’s healthcare provider to reinforce your message.
- Supporting school and local anti-smoking initiatives.
If you or your child is currently addicted to nicotine, talk with your healthcare provider about ways to quit. If you do not vape, don’t start.