The jokes about teens being addicted to their electronic devices are typically referencing their smartphone obsessions. But a small yet growing number of adolescents are now seeking out another electronic device: electronic cigarettes. The percentage of teens who used e-cigarettes doubled from 2011 to 2012, according to recent findings from the National Youth Tobacco Survey.
As a parent, how concerned should you be that your child might try using e-cigarettes? Or use them and then make the switch to real cigarettes?
To some degree, the jury is still out. There’s still relatively little research on electronic cigarettes and the effects of long-term use, and many experts agree that more research is needed about any risks associated with e-cigarette use.
But some health experts are still leery of them.
“They’re not safe. They’re just less dangerous,” is how Dr. Stanford Glantz, professor of medicine and director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California San Francisco, feels.
Here’s what you need to know to help protect your children from the dangers of 21st Century smoking.
What is an e-cigarette?
Electronic cigarettes are essentially battery-powered nicotine inhalers. Some models look like fountain pens, while others resemble a regular cigarette, with an LED light at the end that lights up when the user puffs on it. E-cigarettes don’t contain tobacco, though, and they don’t produce noxious plumes of smoke like a conventional cigarette, which is why many users “light up” inside.
How do e-cigs work?
The e-cigarette contains a heating element and a removable cartridge that is filled with liquid containing varying amounts of nicotine, flavorings and propylene glycol. The heating element heats up the liquid (or e-juice), and instead of producing smoke, it produces vapor. That’s why you may hear people refer to the practice as “vaping.”
What are the statistics?
In 2012, 1.78 million middle and high school students tried e-cigarettes, according to statistics from the National Youth Tobacco Survey. The survey also found that one in five middle school students who’d tried e-cigarettes reported that they’d never smoked a regular cigarette, raising concern that the electronic devices may be “an entry point” to conventional tobacco products.
Adolescent medicine specialist Dr. Mary Romano, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn., worries that teens will get the message that e-cigs are “risk free,” which they aren’t. The e-cigarettes don’t contain tobacco, she notes, but they typically do contain nicotine, and it’s nicotine that gets people hooked. Additionally, nicotine can have negative consequences for an adolescent’s still-developing brain.
“And smoking is not appropriate for kids, regardless of what they’re smoking,” she says.
Some proponents of e-cigarettes do claim that using e-cigs will help a smoker kick their conventional cigarette habit. And indeed, they may help some adult smokers with cessation, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains that there isn’t any conclusive evidence that they’re a successful long-term quitting aid.
Some experts caution, though, that many users don’t actually abandon cigarettes for e-cigarettes; they just use both, a phenomenon called “dual use.” In fact, the National Youth Tobacco Survey found that more than three-quarters of the kids who used e-cigarettes within a 30-day window also smoked regular cigarettes.
Why do they appeal to youth?
Two factors are commonly cited when people wonder why teens are drawn to e-cigs:
First, there’s the celebrity factor. For years, tobacco companies used celebrities to appeal to star-struck potential users. Now e-cigarette companies are taking a page from that playbook. Earlier this year, music star Bruno Mars signed on to endorse an electronic cigarette company, saying he’d use the e-cigs to help him stop smoking regular cigarettes.
Second, the playful flavors—cherry cola, mint, piña colada, cotton candy, chocolate, even pancake and peach cobbler—seem designed to attract young people.
“It looks like cigarette marketing from the 1950s, except that they’ve added the modern youth appeal,” says Dr. Glantz.
Much ado about nothing?
While the number of adolescent e-cigarette users is growing, it’s still smaller than the number of kids who are using conventional tobacco products.
So, should parents be more concerned over their children lighting up a real cigarette instead of an e-cigarette? Family medicine physician Dr. Alan Blum, director of the University of Alabama’s Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society says yes.
“We’re very alarmed over something that probably isn’t really a children’s issue,” he says, noting that far more youth smoke conventional cigarettes. And there’s plenty of evidence of the harm associated with smoking those, he says.
But Dr. Glantz says that parents should still warn their kids away from e-cigarettes. “Nobody thinks it’s good for kids,” he says.
Adds Danny McGoldrick, vice president of research for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, “We don’t know how harmful they are. They are probably less harmful than regular cigarettes. But we need to develop the science to know for sure, and so the companies can’t say things that aren’t true.”
To learn more about how to prevent your child from smoking, visit the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids website.