Is my teen vaping and what can I do about it?
By Dixie Harris, MD
Jan 7, 2020
Updated Jul 13, 2023
5 min read
Raising kids is tough. It takes time, money, and energy in quantities that seem difficult to find. It’s challenging. Part of raising kids is teaching them how to navigate choices in life well. We want the best for our kids, we want the best for all kids, and that includes health. That’s why vaping can be of such concern: because it involves them in compulsive behavior that can end in addiction. Everyone deserves to live a smoke-free life.
Vaping is the act of inhaling vapor using devices like e-cigarettes, e-hookahs, mods, and vape pens. Vaping devices turn nicotine, flavorings, and other chemicals in vape juice into smoke or “vape” that is inhaled.
The use of electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) is growing in popularity, particularly among teenagers. The National Youth Tobacco Survey estimate that 27.5 percent of high school students in 2019 have used e-cigarettes, up from just 1.5 percent of high school students in 2011. Teenagers in middle school are also vaping in growing numbers. The same survey estimated that 10.5 percent of 2019 middle schoolers have used e-cigarettes.
Teenagers may mistakenly believe that vaping is safe. Though researchers are still determining the long-term effects of vaping, there are plenty of signs that show vaping is not safe. Liquids used for vaping, called vape juice, may contain many concerning ingredients including nicotine, THC, vitamin E acetate, cancer-causing formaldehyde, and other chemicals. E-cigarette vapor can also contain ultrafine particles along with heavy metals like nickel, tin, and lead. These chemicals impact mental and physical health.
Nicotine is not only addictive but can harm teenagers' hearts, lungs and brain development, while impacting learning, memory and attention. Vitamin E acetate is used to thicken THC in vaping juice, and although vitamin E usually does not cause harm when ingested, it may interfere with normal lung functioning.
Teenagers may use e-cigarettes to vape, but they might also use vape pens or other portable vaporizers. These devices are sometimes designed to be very discrete, can be purchased online, and can be shipped to homes in unidentifiable packaging. Some devices look like lighters, inhalers, lipstick containers, writing pens, key fobs, and USB flash drives.
Vaping doesn't smell like the odor from cigarette smoke. Vapor from vaping can have no odor at all or it can smell like one of the many available flavors of vape juice, like MBYC (praline, ice cream, and vanilla custard), Surf Cake (wild blueberries and cheesecake), Hawaiian Pog (pineapple, orange, and guava), or Mother’s Milk (smooth custard dessert with sweet strawberry). Flavors and names are designed to appeal to youth because addiction sells.
Signs that your teen is vaping can be challenging to notice. In addition to being mindful of the signs below, ensuring you have regular and open conversations with your teenager is important to knowing if they are vaping.
Parent support matters. Talking with your kid helps them know they can come to you when they have a problem. Here are six tips on how to talk to your teen about the dangers of vaping.
You can help your teenager seek out resources to learn more like talking to a free counselor at 1-800-QUIT-NOW, or online chat rooms at waytoquit.org. As teenagers learn more about their behavior, they can understand how to move forward in life without nicotine products.
Consider getting your teenager’s school involved, too. Health classes will support your message of quitting nicotine products. Talk to your high school administrator and teachers to see how they are addressing the problem. Maybe the science teacher can include a lesson on the biological impacts of nicotine, a psychology teacher can talk about addiction, behavioral compulsion, and self-regulation, or a gym teacher can reinforce the physical performance benefits of staying substance free.
Cullen KA, Gentzke AS, Sawdey MD, et al. e-Cigarette Use Among Youth in the United States, 2019. JAMA. 2019;322(21):2095–2103. doi:https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2019.18387
Goriounova, N. A., & Mansvelder, H. D. (2012). Short- and long-term consequences of nicotine exposure during adolescence for prefrontal cortex neuronal network function. Cold Spring Harbor perspectives in medicine, 2(12), a012120. doi:10.1101/cshperspect.a012120
Gotts, J. E., Jordt, S.-E., Mcconnell, R., & Tarran, R. (2019). What are the respiratory effects of e-cigarettes? Bmj, l5275. doi: 10.1136/bmj.l5275
NIDA. (2018, December 17). Teens using vaping devices in record numbers. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/news-releases/2018/12/teens-using-vaping-devices-in-record-numbers on 2019, December 10