Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, have become so popular that they surpassed conventional cigarettes as the most commonly used tobacco product among youth in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
E-cigarette use among youth has soared — from 1.5 percent in 2011 to 13.4 percent in 2014 among high school students, and from 0.6 percent in 2011 to 3.9 percent in 2014 among middle school students, according to the CDC.
E-cigarettes, battery-powered devices that provide doses of nicotine and other additives to the user in an aerosol, are often falsely viewed as a harmless alternative to conventional cigarettes because e-cigarettes do not contain tar, which can lead to tobacco-related diseases.
But, there are real dangers for users of e-cigarettes, especially for youth, medical experts say.
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An adolescent brain is particularly vulnerable to addiction because it is still developing, said Dr. Judy Schaechter, chair of the department of pediatrics at UHealth — University of Miami Health System. Nicotine addiction can then become more severe and difficult to break.
Nicotine addiction can also become a gateway to conventional cigarettes and other substances, said Dr. Loretta Duggan, an adolescent medicine fellow at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. A person with a family history of addiction or an addictive personality can also be very vulnerable.
“It can make it easier to lead to illicit drug use,” Duggan said.
Nicotine can increase heart rate and blood pressure as well as contribute to cardiovascular and heart disease, Duggan said. E-cigarettes can cause strokes and cancer because nicotine can negatively affect blood vessels.
“Even though e-cigarettes seem harmless, a real risk exists,” Duggan said.
There is very little research about other effects that e-cigarettes, which include other additives, can have on the body, Schaechter said. But, e-cigarettes can have a negative effect on the brain, causing inflammation to the lungs and developing tissue.
Schaechter noted reports of e-cigarette users suffering from “popcorn lung” or bronchiolitis obliterans. That is an irreversible life-threatening disease that causes scarring within small air sacs in the lungs, resulting in a severe cough and shortness of breath that gets progressively worse over time.
According to a study released by the Harvard School of Public Health, 75 percent of flavored e-cigarettes and their refill liquids were found to contain diacetyl, a flavoring chemical linked to cases of severe respiratory disease such as “popcorn lung.”
E-cigarettes are often attractive to adolescents because of their kid-friendly flavors, packaging and advertisements.
According to a CDC study released in April, there is a link between exposure to e-cigarette advertisements and the use of e-cigarettes by middle and high school students. Spending on e-cigarette advertising rose from $6.4 million in 2011 to an estimated $115 million in 2014.
The high rate of e-cigarette use among adolescents suggests that adolescents who would not have otherwise used tobacco products are picking up the habit, according to a study released this summer by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Parents can guard against these dangers. Talk to children as young as 6, before they are influenced by their peers, Duggan said.
Parents should also not indulge in e-cigarette use, Schaechter said.
“We know children of smokers are more likely to smoke,” Schaechter said. “If parents don’t want their children to pick up addictive habits, they shouldn’t do it.”
Also, monitor their social media, TV and cellphone usage, where adolescents can view e-cigarette advertisements.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued new rules in May that for the first time extend federal regulatory authority to e-cigarettes, banning their sale to anyone under 18 and requiring that adults under the age of 26 show a photo identification to buy them.
The new rules also require manufacturers to register with the FDA, disclose detailed reports of their products’ ingredients and obtain permission to sell their products.
“We can work with teens to break addiction, unlike with our parents and grandparents, who didn’t have the type of knowledge that we have today,” Duggan said.
What parents and guardians can do:
▪ Set a positive example by being tobacco-free. For free help, call 1-800-QUIT-NOW or visit www.smokefree.gov
▪ Talk to your kids about why they shouldn’t use any tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.
▪ Know what media your children are viewing, and decide what programs and websites are appropriate for their age. Watch programs together and discuss content.