Teen Vaping – Everything You Need To Know

Addison is your typical teenage girl. At 14 years old, she is equal parts charming, curious, social, and volatile. Behind her are the team sports she used to play like softball and soccer and the activities she enjoyed like playing piano and photography.

Now in middle school, she’s much more interested in making TikTok videos, watching YouTube, and going skateboarding with her friends in the neighborhood. The schedule she keeps is different, her taste in music has changed, and she spends a lot of time in her room with the door closed. 

One afternoon after Addison left to go hang out with her friends again, her mom felt the nudge to clean her room rather than fight about it later. Moving her backpack, a device fell out that looked like a USB flash drive you’d use for a laptop. But, something caught her eye, and she realized that this wasn’t any old USB drive.

Doing a quick search on Google, she found a video on YouTube explaining to parents what a Vape pen looks like and realized they needed to have an urgent talk. 

Addison’s story isn’t unique, nor is it new. Millions of kids a generation ago got caught in similar ways for smoking cigarettes. But vaping is different, and it has different health hazards. It’s also much easier to hide, and that is intentional. Devices are designed to blend in, and they often don’t have an odor. Remember the antics kids used to go through to remove the smell of cigarette smoke?  

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about vaping — not just amongst teenagers but also parents and educators. 

WHAT IS VAPING?

Vaping is similar to smoking, but you don’t use a match or lighter.

Technically, it’s the process of inhaling aerosol liquid that’s heated by a battery-powered device, a heating element that heats up the liquid when the button is pressed. The heating process then turns the liquid into an aerosol, and the user inhales the smoke through a mouthpiece. 

The most commonly known vaping device is from the brand, JUUL, so often the term vaping is used interchangeably with ‘JUULing.’ Another name for vaping is e-cigarette since the heating process is powered by an electric current.

The most common vaping liquid includes nicotine (the same chemical in cigarettes), flavoring chemicals, and sometimes THC, the psychoactive ingredient found in marijuana. The liquid comes in a wide array of flavors and is often similar to candy or fruit flavors like strawberry or cotton candy. 

WHO’S VAPING?

About 20% of U.S. high school students and 5% of middle schoolers who responded to the 2020 National Youth Tobacco Survey said they’d used an e-cigarette in the past month. The good news is, there’s been some significant decline in the past two years, but it’s still considered an epidemic.

In other words, a lot of kids vape.

WHAT ARE THE RISKS OF VAPING?

Unfortunately, there’s a misconception that vaping isn’t harmful like smoking cigarettes, but that’s not true. The vapor can contain harmful and potentially harmful chemicals, including nicotine.

Nicotine is harmful to teen brains which are still developing into their twenties, and it can impair learning and memory.

Nicotine changes the way brain synapses are developed which can harm the parts of the brain that control focused attention. It can also cause mood disorders and permanently lower impulse control — can you imagine teenagers who never develop impulse control?

Wait, there’s more. 

The chemicals formaldehyde, acrolein, and acetaldehyde can cause irreversible lung damage.

The flavoring can contain chemicals linked to lung disease. It can contain benzene, which is found in car exhaust, not to mention toxic metals like nickel, tin, and lead. Other toxic chemicals that you can’t pronounce such as acrylonitrile, propylene oxide, and crotonaldehyde are in there, too.

E-cigarette use among teens is strongly linked to the use of other tobacco products like regular cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco.

Teens who vape regularly are more than four times more likely to start smoking cigarettes within 18 months than those who don’t vape.

Here’s a great video from NIDA on the dangers of vaping.

HOW IS IT DIFFERENT FROM SMOKING?

It’s actually not that different. Sure, it’s less offensive — would you rather smell cigarettes or Banana Nut Bread vapor?

It’s also a little less dangerous to use a device powered by a tiny battery than fire. So, it has that going for it. But, the biggest myth is that it’s healthier than smoking cigarettes. 

Roughly 99% of vaping e-liquids contain nicotine, which is highly addictive.

One Juul e-liquid pod contains as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes, and that’s just the medium-strength formula (5% nicotine).

Finally, it’s possible to hide vaping pretty effectively — way easier than hiding a cigarette. That’s why it’s so dangerous for teens. They can easily take a puff from their vaping device in the bathroom and sometimes even in the middle of class. 

HOW IS IT DIFFERENT FROM MARIJUANA?

More and more teenagers are using vaping devices to consume marijuana. It’s easy for many teens to acquire the e-cigarette liquid containing THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that produces a high. The level of THC in marijuana vapes can be a lot more concentrated than in plant-based marijuana. Therefore, vaped marijuana is typically much more potent than smoked marijuana

Percentage of students who report vaping marijuana recently (according to the 2019 Monitoring the Future Survey from drugabuse.org released in September 2020):

  • 8th grade       3.9%
  • 10th grade     12.6%
  • 12th grade     14%

WHAT DOES VAPING LOOK LIKE?

When e-cigarettes first came out, some devices were designed to resemble regular cigarettes while others looked more like cigars, pipes, pens, and even USB flash drives. Originally, the e-cigarette was disposable.

what are the health risks of vaping

Then, they produced rechargeable devices that looked like pens. Now, many of them are designed to look like electronic devices like USB flash drives. Others might look a little more inconspicuous, like small cell phones, watches, lipstick, or even guitar picks. 

WHY DO TEENS VAPE?

Teens naturally pull away from adults and instead invest most of their time and energy in peer relationships. That’s normal and expected.

With their craving for dopamine from thrilling activities, teens will often turn to risky behaviors with substances to satisfy their craving — not to mention impress their peers.

It’s not drugs or alcohol they crave, it’s the feeling they get after doing something risky.

What teens want is to feel like they belong. This is different from fitting in. When we fit in, we learn to sacrifice or hide some important parts of ourselves to be able to blend in and be accepted rather than rejected.

True belonging, however, comes when we are accepted because of our uniqueness and differences. It’s not until we truly own our preferences, our interests, and our quirks — and disclose them to others — that we can experience what we really hope for deep down. 

Of course, adolescence is so much about exploration and discovery. Teens don’t yet know themselves, so they need to try on different personas to see if they resonate or not. They need to try different values and adopt different views to see what works for them. They are searching for a life that is both intrinsically consistent with who they are and aspirational for who they want to become. 

That’s all happening inside of a teenager, and they’re not even aware of it. The danger is, they might make some poor choices during these crucial years that will have an impact on the rest of their lives.

90% of lifelong addiction struggles start during the teen years.

It’s a critical time for them, and they need the best adult intervention and guidance we can give them. 

Profound research emerged in the prevention scene a few years ago through what’s called the Social Norms Approach. The concept is simple — most kids think their peers are engaging in unhealthy behaviors more than they really are, and when kids learn the facts, their proclivity to engage in unhealthy behaviors decreases. 

Neuroscientists have learned that the brain doesn’t fully develop until around age twenty-five. That means teenagers lack the capacity to make informed choices for themselves and others that reflect common sense or logic. They can’t yet process through their personal values, either, and are driven more by emotion and by a desire for chemical highs that come from taking risks. 

To put it another way, teenagers don’t yet have the capacity to think through the long-term consequences of their decisions. Rather than looking at their foolish choices through a lens of morality, it’s more productive to look at their behaviors through the lens of brain development. 

Dr. Patricia Conrod from Quebec, Canada, has led a research team and has demonstrated that personality factors can be highly predictive of who develops problems with alcohol and substance misuse.

There are four personality types that seem to have a higher correlation with struggles, and there’s a personality profile that can be administered to students to help them better understand themselves. 

  1. Impulsivity: An impulsive person acts with their gut on the spur of the moment without thinking much about the consequences of their actions. It might remind you of the kid who has behavior issues in class — the one who can’t help but cracking a funny joke or getting too physical with other kids on the playground.
  2. Sensation Seeking: A sensation seeker craves excitement and often acts without thinking clearly about the consequences. You might be reminded of the kid who’s a risk-taker outside of school in the activities they pursue — the one who shows videos of herself skateboarding down a hill without a helmet.
  3. Anxiety Sensitivity: The assessment describes someone with this type as a person who has stressful physical sensations and worries about anxious feelings.
  4. Negative Thinking: A person who often feels sad, guilty, and irritable is susceptible to negative thinking. This is often a more difficult personality to observe since thinking happens underneath the surface. But, adults can usually detect these kinds of thoughts based on their facial expressions or comments they overhear. 

WHAT ARE THE SIGNS THAT MY KID IS VAPING?

The following are some telltale signs that your kid might be vaping:

  • Paraphernalia: Imagine a scene from an old After School special where a parent is cleaning out a sock drawer while their kid is at school and finds some smoking or drug paraphernalia. The gear has changed, though, and might not be as readily identifiable. It might look like a USB flash drive, a cartridge with liquid, or a cartridge. Before you believe the old excuse, “It’s not mine — it’s a friend’s,” take a deep breath and admit that they probably aren’t telling you the truth. This is a great opportunity to have a conversation with your kid about vaping.
  • Symptoms: There are side effects to vaping like headaches, coughing, sore throats and dizziness.
  • Smells: With cigarettes, it’s pretty easy to identify and difficult to hide. With vaping, however, it’s likely going to be a lot different. Vaping has a fainter smell that usually has a hint of a unique scent like banana bread or cotton candy. If you’re smelling that, and you don’t have a ton of air fresheners around the house, it’s likely coming from vaping. 
  • Deliveries: If your kid is keenly interested in watching for the UPS delivery guy, it’s probably not for school supplies. A lot of teens have figured out how to use their parents’ credit cards to make online purchases that are not typically noticeable on the statement as vaping. 
  • Social media: If you’re monitoring what your kid is doing on social media, you might pay special attention to notice if your kid or their close friends are sharing stories about vaping. Kids often can’t help but share their risky exploits with their peers. It’s a huge driver for why they engage in risk behaviors in the first place — to get noticed.
  • Appearance and behavior changes: Vaping can spark irritability, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, or loss of appetite. If they’re vaping marijuana, there are traditional signs to look for like bloodshot eyes, excessive thirst, or an increased appetite.
  • Change in friendships: Kids are often drawn to make new friendships and transition from old ones. That’s normal. But if you get shady vibes from their new friends, it’s a good reason to be curious and make an effort to get to know them. Kids are highly influenced by the people they spend time with.

Related: 9 Signs Your Teen May Be Using Drugs or Alcohol

HOW DO I TALK WITH MY KIDS ABOUT VAPING?

Avoid a lecture at all costs.

Every kid who has a conversation about drugs and alcohol with their parents is better off. Better still if there are a series of ongoing discussions over the years. And, there’s one important caveat to these important interactions — they need to be interactions.

No lectures or monologues — they have to be dialogues and conversations. Text messages don’t count, and neither do notes in their lunch bag. 

Do you remember the way Charles Schulz depicted the way Charlie Brown’s parents sounded? Yeah, that was no joke, it’s reality. When an adolescent feels like they’re being talked down to, lectured, or ‘taught,’ their brains turn off and the message is not received.

So, don’t just have a monologue and pat yourself on the back. Share what’s on your mind, and then ask questions.

Know the facts.
  • Get credible information about e-cigarettes and young people at E-cigarettes.SurgeonGeneral.gov.
  • Be patient and ready to listen.
  • Avoid criticism and encourage an open dialogue.
  • It’s OK for your conversation to take place over time and in bits and pieces.
Set a positive example by being tobacco-free.
Find the right moment

A more natural discussion will increase the likelihood that your teen will listen. Rather than saying “we need to talk,” you might ask your teen what he or she thinks about a situation you witness together. 

Here are some examples:

  • Seeing someone use an e-cigarette in person or in a video.
  • Passing an e-cigarette shop when you are walking or driving.
  • Seeing an e-cigarette advertisement in a store or magazine or on the internet.
Answer their questions

Here are some questions and comments you might get from your teen about vaping:

Why can’t I?

  • Because vaping is more harmful than you think. 
  • Your brain is still developing, and not only are you more susceptible to addiction, but you’re also likely to create brain pathways that reduce your ability to concentrate or remember what you’re learning. 
  • There’s a real risk to your lungs, and you can seriously damage your lungs for the rest of your life.
  • It’s not safe to breathe in chemicals. Period.

What’s so bad about nicotine?

  • Nicotine can harm your brain’s development, especially before it’s fully developed at 25 years old.
  • Nicotine has addictive properties that create a craving inside your brain for more. Sometimes kids end up craving more than nicotine, and it leads them to make even riskier choices with other drugs.

Isn’t vaping safer than smoking cigarettes?

  • Because your brain is still developing, scientific studies show that it isn’t safe for you to use anything that contains nicotine.
  • Vaping doesn’t use fire to light, but people have been hurt by their vaping devices exploding in their faces.

Vaping isn’t like smoking it doesn’t have nicotine. Right?

  • Most e-cigarettes have nicotine in addition to other harmful chemicals.

You smoked when you were younger, how come I can’t?

  • You’re right, and it was a poor choice. I wish I hadn’t. Quitting was really hard, and I still don’t know what long-term damage I did to myself.

Related: How to Talk to Kids About Drugs & Alcohol

WHAT’S THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO IF MY KID VAPES?

Schools are cracking down. A lot of district leaders across the country are aware of the harmful effects of vaping and are doing their best to provide guardrails and consequences for vaping offenses on school property. If your kid gets caught, they can face significant consequences that will affect them in multiple ways including suspension, expulsion, or a ban from sports or other activities. 

Death. In the past year, there has been a wave of severe lung injuries and deaths associated with vaping. (from Drugfree.org) The condition, known as EVALI (E-cigarette, or Vaping, product use Associated Lung Injury), has sickened more than 2,800 people and has led to nearly 70 deaths across the country.

WHERE DO I FIND THE BEST RESOURCES ON VAPING?

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