Every parent needs to be aware of a new trend among teens and young adults: using what are called “e-cigarettes,” a high-tech alternative to traditional cigarettes. Makers of e-cigarettes claim that they are safer, have lower cancer risks, and provide higher doses of nicotine per breath. What is this new and improved cigarette, the e-cigarette? It is a battery powered tube that uses the heat from the batteries to vaporize nicotine, allowing the “smoker” to inhale without the smoke. Nothing is actually burning in these devices. Unfortunately, just because the user isn’t inhaling smoke does not mean that e-cigarettes are harmless. Nicotine itself is addictive and poisonous. The World Heath Organization and the Food and Drug Administration have concluded that there is no evidence that e-cigarettes are safer, and that the makers of e-cigarettes are misleading the public. Many states are working on banning the sale of e-cigarettes to minors.
Nonetheless, the teen move toward e-cigarettes has begun. A recent study at Eastern Carolina University surveyed 3200 urban high school students between 2011 and 2012 on their attitudes and use of e-cigarettes. The average age of the students was 16.4 years with the following ethnic breakdown: 44% black, 38% white and 8.2 % Mexican American. The investigators asked the teens if they had ever used e-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco. The survey revealed the following results:
- 25% of teens had used or were using traditional cigarettes
- 15% of teens had used or where using e-cigarettes
- 13% had used or were using smokeless tobacco.
Teens seem to be unusually susceptible to the smoking/tobacco messages. Many believe that smoking is cool, provides a pleasurable taste, reduces stress levels, moves them into the “adult world” more quickly, and impresses their peers. Additionally, they seem to believe that e-cigarettes are a safer alternative to traditional tobacco. Unfortunately, the health problems that traditional cigarettes cause aren’t seen until many years after their use; the same may be true for e-cigarettes. It will be a long time before we have any idea if e-cigarettes are safer than traditional tobacco products.
Here is our advice for parents when talking to children about cigarettes and tobacco:
- Send a clear message all through childhood that tobacco products cause serious health problems
- Get ahead of the peer pressure by reminding children that tobacco use does not enhance looks or attractiveness in any way
- Teach children that smokeless tobacco is probably as dangerous or more dangerous than traditional tobacco products
- Offer help to children who are using tobacco products (In this regard, a child’s doctor can be a wonderful resource. In North Carolina, the following resource are available to anyone, free of charge. http://www.quitlinenc.com/)
- If a child is using e-cigarettes as a “safer alternative” to cigarettes, point out to him or her that the long-term health consequences of e-cigarettes are unknown.
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1. Naseem Miller, E-cigarettes gaining popularity in high schools, Pediatric News, November 13 2013.
Written collaboratively by Catherine Wu and Paul Smolen M.D.