After decades of declines in tobacco use by teenagers, vaping and the use of e-cigarettes is surging in high schools and middle schools nationwide. According to a November 2018 advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General, e-cigarette use increased 78% among high school seniors and 48% among middle school students from 2017 to 2018.
As they have before, parents, teachers, and coaches must once again help kids understand the risks and learn to reject nicotine and tobacco.
Vaping eliminates several of the barriers that discouraged kids from sampling and getting hooked on nicotine. There’s no lighter, or hot, harsh smoke to inhale. A single pen-sized Juul, which has an estimated 75% of the market, is also easy to conceal and contains the nicotine content of a pack of 20 cigarettes. Maybe most importantly for teens, it’s hard to detect because the vapor doesn’t linger on the user’s clothes or breath. The industry is also making vaping more appealing to kids by focusing on fruity and dessert flavors.
E-cigarette Risks for Teens
Vaping doesn’t look, smell, taste, or linger the way conventional tobacco products do, and the sleek and clean design gives a false impression that e-cigarettes are safe.
According to the U.S. Surgeon General, here are some of the reasons they are not.
- Physical effects of nicotine:
Potent stimulant, increases blood pressure and heart rate, increases arterial stiffness.
Nicotine is physically addictive and young, developing minds are more susceptible to learning addictive behaviors.
- Brain risks:
For the still-developing brain, nicotine can increase the likelihood for mood disorders, permanently reduce impulse control, and reduce cognitive abilities.
- Greater tobacco and drug use:
There is no evidence to support the idea that e-cigarettes keep people from using burned or smokeless tobacco. While a small number of tobacco users have used e-cigarettes to quit smoking, far more new e-cigarette users subsequently start using conventional tobacco products.
E-cigarettes and Sport
Nicotine is a powerful stimulant with a long association with sport, particularly baseball. However, according to a 2017 review study, athletes in football, ice hockey, wrestling, gymnastics, and skiing are increasingly using it as well. While appealing to many athletes, the ergogenic effect may be overestimated. It is also important for coaches and parents to know athletes reported using nicotine for alertness, weight loss, and preventing dry mouth.
Addressing the Problem
Though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced plans to restrict flavored e-cigarette products, they are currently easy to get. In the meantime, the Surgeon General and Centers for Disease Control recommend a number of ways parents, coaches, and healthcare providers can help address the problem, including the following.
- Be a good example:
Quit personal tobacco use and establish tobacco-free rules for your home or sports facility.
- Initiate the conversation:
Instead of waiting until a young athlete brings it up, use cues, like a person vaping nearby, to bring up the topic more naturally.
- Learn so you can educate:
Learn what e-cigarettes look like and how they work, as well as the health risks of nicotine. Nearly two-thirds of Juul users age 14-24 do not know Juul always contains nicotine.
- Repeat the message:
Just like practicing new sport skills, saying it once isn’t going to do it. Find new ways to communicate the message, like using a team approach and including conversations with a doctor, coaches, teachers, and athlete role models.
The good news is that even with the dramatic increase in vaping, four out of five high school students are NOT doing it. Nationwide efforts to reduce tobacco use have worked in the past. Parents, coaches, and teachers played a big role in those successes, and can do the same again.