You may have noticed the rising popularity of electronic cigarettes; these days, they even seem more common than traditional paper cigarettes. Don’t be deceived by their simple appearance – the use of these devices, commonly called “vaping,” can pose many health risks to users, specifically adolescents.
E-cigarettes, which generally use a refillable liquid or disposable cartridge, deliver vaporized liquid to the user. And while they’re often viewed as a safer alternative to regular cigarettes, research continues to reveal dangers surrounding their use.
Consequently, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently released broader guidelines regarding adolescent use of e-cigarettes.
Below, Lyndsey van der Laan, MD, pediatrician at Florida Hospital, breaks down what you need to know about these devices.
What’s the difference between e-cigarettes and regular cigarettes?
Dr. van der Laan says the biggest difference between the two is their composition.
“E-cigarette solutions generally have three components: nicotine, flavoring chemicals, and carrier solvents,” Dr. van der Laan explains. “Other components identified within the solution include tobacco specific nitrosamines, metals, tobacco alkaloids, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.”
A common misconception is that e-cigarettes don’t pose significant health risks like regular cigarettes. Dr. van der Laan says this isn’t the case.
Nicotine Levels Hard to Determine
Many flavoring solvents in e-cigarettes contain aldehydes, a known respiratory irritant. Also, it can be hard to determine the exact level of nicotine that an e-cigarette contains. One study found significant discrepancies – as high as 89 percent – between the label of the e-cigarette and the actual nicotine content.
“What’s interesting about e-cigarettes is the lack of concern people have about them,” remarks Dr. van der Laan.
“Nicotine is well absorbed via any route, whether through inhalation, ingestion or even skin contact. Mild toxicity of nicotine can lead to a fine tremor, nausea, tachycardia, and high blood pressure. Severe poisoning can lead to salivation, vomiting, seizures, muscle twitching, low blood pressure, bradycardia, and respiratory failure.”
Sometimes, people try to use e-cigarettes to quit smoking regular cigarettes. Contrary to popular opinion, this may actually make the addiction worse.
“Claims that e-cigarettes are healthier or an effective way to reduce traditional cigarette use hasn’t been validated,” she explains. “In fact, in one study of high school students, those using e-cigarettes had more than six times the odds of smoking conventional cigarettes later in life.”
Dangers to toddlers
According to Dr. van der Laan, the risks of e-cigarettes can extend beyond direct users. Since the introduction of e-cigarettes, cases of children accidentally ingesting the product have been rising.
“With the varying nicotine levels in the e-cigarette solutions, as little as a half of a teaspoon could be fatal in an average sized toddler,” Dr. van der Laan says.
How can e-cigarettes affect an adolescent’s future health?
She cautions that e-cigarettes are now the most common form of nicotine used in adolescence.
“Development of executive function (mental skills that help you get things done like time management) and neurocognitive processes aren’t fully developed in adolescence, making teens more vulnerable to addiction,” she explains. “Early use of nicotine containing products like e-cigarettes may also act as a gateway to other addictive substances.”
Dr. van der Laan also stresses that nicotine is one of the most addictive substances known, so if you become addicted at a young age, you’ll be more likely to experience extended nicotine use throughout your lifetime.
Are there any legal regulations of e-cigarettes?
“Although most states prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, there is no federally mandated age restriction. There is also no regulation on content, labeling or packaging of e-cigarette solution. Finally, there are no laws which prevent e-cigarettes from being purchased online, regardless of age,” elaborates Dr. van der Laan. “The overall lack of regulations and laws sends a message that e-cigarettes are safe.”
Dr. van der Laan notes that e-cigarettes are often designed to appeal to teens. For example, many e-cigarette flavors, like chocolate, cotton candy, or Belgian waffle, are likely to attract younger uses.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics has proposed several public policy recommendations, many of which are the same regulations used for conventional cigarettes. These include banning flavored e-cigarette solutions, banning internet sales, banning advertising in media/internet that can be viewed by youth, restricting use in movies and video games, and prohibiting use in public spaces like restaurants,” Dr. van der Laan says. “If these regulations are acceptable for conventional cigarettes, then why not for e-cigarettes?”