by Thomas Ylioja, PhD
Many teens are under the impression that vaping or using electronic cigarettes is a safe and “cool” alternative to smoking tobacco products. However, the scary truth about electronic cigarettes is that even though many teens believe when they are vaping that they are simply inhaling flavored water vapor, a small pocket-sized e-cigarette device often contains as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.
Parents need to be aware of the facts and recognize that teens are an easy target for e-cigarette addiction for several reasons. Most critically, the adolescent developing brain changes rapidly when exposed to nicotine, increasing the likelihood of teens becoming addicted once they begin vaping. Compound this risk for addiction with sweet flavors like mango and crème brûlée plus marketing strategies that intentionally skew young, and teen intrigue is high.
Parents know the dangers of teen nicotine addiction and that e-cigarette usage is a trending problem in adolescents, but what are the warning signs that an adolescent child might be vaping and/or developing a nicotine addiction?
Is your teen acting differently?
This is a tough one with teenagers because moodiness and irritability often comes with the territory. But as a parent, know what’s “normal” behavior and what might be cause for concern. If a parent notices a shift in behavior that seems more intense than the day-to-day adolescent mood swings, the teen may be struggling with symptoms of nicotine addiction and withdrawal.
Have you noticed new friends around or a lack of their old friends?
If a teen has a sudden change in their peer group and starts spending time with new friends that a parent is unfamiliar with or abandoning a steady, long term peer group, this could be a sign that the teen is exploring new, potentially dangerous activities that parents should be concerned about.
Do you smell or see something unusual?
With traditional smoked tobacco products, there is a strong, unpleasant and lingering odor that is a tell-tale sign for parents that their teen is using tobacco. With e-cigarettes, the vapor smell may be odorless and fades quickly. Flavored vapors may have a sweet smell. In fact, unless a parent is present when the teen is vaping or very soon after (think a few seconds), a parent may not notice any smell. Similarly, if a parent notices an unusual, small device that resemble USB drives or odd-looking pens, this could be an e-cigarette. The devices are often small and easily concealed in the teen’s hand or pocket.
If parents notice any of these signs, the time is right to have a conversation with the teen about the dangers of e-cigarettes and nicotine addiction. Having an open conversation is a good first step to preventing or intervening on tobacco use. Often, teens are misguided by peer groups and advertisements to believe that the e-liquids are safe or that when they are vaping, they are “just inhaling water vapor.” In fact, the e-liquid cartridges can contain high amounts of nicotine as well as heavy metals, propylene glycol and glycerin. The best way for parents to approach this conversation is to explain their concerns and discuss the short- and long-term health effects. Nicotine has adverse effects for youth because of their stage of brain development, including on memory, concentration, and learning. Just like when traditional cigarettes were new, and we did not know how harmful they would ultimately prove to be, electronic-cigarettes are new products and the truth is that we don’t yet know the full long-term health effects of use.
Though not applicable in all situations, if a parent is using nicotine products, the best thing they can do is model how difficult it is to go through the process of quitting. It is important to discuss the struggle of nicotine addiction and take steps to become tobacco-free by seeing a health care provider or getting medication and counseling through services like 1-800-QUIT-NOW. Teens who are starting to experiment with vaping products or who are seeing it used among their peer groups may think twice about using one when they witness how difficult it is to stop.
For parents, it is critical to find ways to signal to teens that nicotine and tobacco products are not part of a healthy future.
Thomas Ylioja, PhD is the Clinical Director of Health Initiatives and Assistant Professor of Medicine at National Jewish Health. He is a licensed social worker and tobacco cessation expert focused on helping patient groups make healthy lifestyle changes while building a stronger connection between health systems, patient tobacco addiction treatment and recovery.
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