Recent reports indicate many teenagers are turning to e-cigarettes or similar devices as an alternative to smoking ‘real’ cigarettes. The good news is, there’s been a sharp drop in the number of high school students trying e-cigarettes, in America at least. The bad news is almost a quarter of high school students have tried them.
For the uninitiated, an e-cigarette is an electronic device that mimics a cigarette. Instead of tobacco, e-cigarettes contain a flavoured liquid that is heated to produce a vapour which is then inhaled. A vapouriser is similar, but if you really want to know the difference, here’s a quick run-down. Vapouriser liquids come in a variety of flavours. Some contain nicotine (although in Australia this can’t be legally purchased), some contain marijuana or its active ingredient THC, and there are often other chemicals present, such as diacetyl, propylene glycol and/or glycerol.
SO, IS IT SAFE?
There’s considerable debate about the safety of vaping. While evidence suggests that e-cigarettes are less harmful than traditional cigarettes, vaping can create irritations of the respiratory tracts or worsen asthma, and often results in a dry throat and coughing. Unfortunately, long term health risks are not known at the moment. As one authority commented “Safer is not the same as safe”.
Teenagers themselves may believe vaping is harmless however. According to one US study at least, around two-thirds of the teens who experiment with vaping try flavoured juices that contain no nicotine, marijuana or other drugs. But there are concerning reports of teenagers experimenting with modifying the devices (“dripping”) to create a stronger ‘hit’. This could expose them not only to higher levels of nicotine, but even with nicotine-free liquids could create much higher exposure to other toxins, including known carcinogens.
ADDICTION AND MARKETING TACTICS
Another debate concerns whether vaping will become a gateway for some teenagers to move on to more traditional and harmful ways of smoking, especially as inhaling nicotine is likely to lead to addiction and lifelong health risks.
Some suggest that e-cigarettes might provide a way for smokers to quit or cut back on their nicotine intake, but there’s currently little evidence that this actually works. One thing we do know is that tobacco companies are trying to ensure the laws on nicotine vaping are relaxed in Australia.
Some of the available e-cigarette brands are owned by big tobacco companies, and are among the most heavily advertised online and in stores promising independence and freedom, and using sex appeal to manipulate people into buying.
OPEN UP THE CONVERSATION
So just because your teenager doesn’t smell of tobacco or carry matches or a lighter that doesn’t mean they aren’t vaping. Talk with your teenager about e-cigarettes and other forms of smoking. Explain that these aren't risk-free and encourage them to check out trusted web-sites that provide reliable information.
More research may be needed about the short- and long-term effects of vaping, but it doesn’t hurt to educate teenagers about the kind of tactics Big Tobacco and other firms use to keep their businesses going.