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 Vape culture is exploding in American high schools. Last year, 37.3% of high school seniors admitted to having vaped in the past year, up from 28.7% in 2017. This means that whether your child vapes or not, they are surrounded by kids who do. Here are a few things you should know.

Why do teens vape? If you ever took a puff of a cigarette when you were a teen, you already know the answer to this question. The teenage years are a time of unparalleled emotional insecurity. Back when you took that first puff, it was a way to demonstrate to your peers that you could be edgy or cool. It was also a way to rebel, to break the rules, and to assert your independence. It might also have been an attempt to deal with stress, depression, or anxiety. The same applies to vaping for today’s teens. There is one insidious difference between vaping and smoking, however. While it has been suspected since the 1600s that smoking is terribly unhealthy—a suspicion that received exhaustive scientific confirmation beginning in the 1950s—the acceptance of vaping has hinged on the assumption that it’s mostly harmless. Most teens don’t realize that vaping is a form of substance abuse that can quickly progress from experimentation to addiction. So in addition to all the usual peer pressure kids have to deal with, they have to contend with the deceptively simple justification that “it’s just vapor, bro.” The problem is, it’s not just vapor.

How addictive is vaping? An easier question would be: how addictive is nicotine? We all know the answer to that one: extremely. The most commonly cited attempt to rate the addictiveness of various drugs places nicotine next to heroin and crack cocaine on a list of drugs that “induce powerful dependence.” Some e-juices are nicotine-free, but most aren’t. A single cartridge of e-juice from JUUL—the most popular brand by far among teens—yields 200 puffs and contains the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes. While 200 puffs might sound like a lot, ease of concealment means that kids can vape almost anywhere: in class, on a school bus, or in their own bedroom. With such meager barriers, it’s not uncommon for habituated vapers to consume a pod or more per day. 

But addiction is just the tip of the iceberg.

How dangerous is vaping? Unfortunately, when it comes to children, there are deeper concerns about nicotine than mere addiction. Nicotine affects an adolescent’s brain differently than an adult’s brain, impacting development in various ways. Worse, it may sensitize the adolescent brain to other drugs, priming it for more serious addictions in adulthood. Because of these high nicotine levels, vaping is extremely addictive — and teens are already more susceptible to addiction than adults because their brains are still developing, which makes them more likely to habituate to using drugs and alcohol.Beyond the presence of nicotine itself, it is important to understand that kids who vape are not simply inhaling benign water vapor. E-juice ingredients vary widely, are largely unregulated, and can contain a variety of chemical compounds. One analysis of 51 flavored e-juice varieties chosen for their obvious appeal to kids—products with names like “Bubble Gum” and “CooCoo Coconut”—showed that the overwhelming majority of them contained the flavoring chemical diacetyl, which has been linked to “popcorn lung” when inhaled. There is an array of other potential dangers as well, including suppressing immunity in much the same way as smoking cigarettes does, a possible impact on gene expression in the hippocampus and, in rare cases, a serious condition known as water lung. But wait. It gets worse. Some vapers use their devices in ways not intended by the manufacturer. One example of this is called “dripping,” where the user bypasses the mouthpiece and inhales the vapor from e-juice that has been dripped directly onto the battery-powered heating coil. This technique heats the liquid at a higher temperature, which increases the thickness of the smoke and the strength of the hit. It also may increase their exposure to nicotine and toxins like formaldehyde. While this may sound like a fringe practice, 26% of high school kids who have tried vaping have also tried dripping. Finally, vaping devices can be used to vaporize more than just e-juice. Marijuana, opiates, and some amphetamines can also be on the menu, each of which carries risks of their own. 

How can I tell if my child is vaping? Vaping is much easier to conceal than smoking. The odor that results from vaping is faint or nonexistent, and is far less conspicuous than that of cigarette smoke. Depending on the type or flavor of e-juice being vaped, the residual odor—which dissipates quickly—might smell like fruit, candy or bubble gum. Modern vaping devices are also more difficult to recognize than a pack of Marlboros. JUUL Labs makes a device that looks a lot like a flash drive, and can even be charged through a USB port. Other manufacturers make equally inconspicuous devices that look like pens or styluses, so vaping devices can be difficult to notice unless a parent is vigilant. E-juice contains propylene glycol, which can dry out the nose, skin and mouth, so nosebleeds or constant thirst might be an indicator that your child is vaping.Some vapers develop a sensitivity to caffeine, so any sudden changes in caffeine intake might be a red flag as well. 

How to talk to your child about vaping. This will depend on your relationship with your child, and on whether your child has begun vaping or is merely trying to deal with pressure from their friend group. That said, there is one important piece of advice to keep in mind: don’t lecture. Even if you find that your teen has started vaping, and even if you are worried or disappointed, an open and honest conversation is the best way forward. Realize that there are often multiple factors in a child’s decision to vape. Approach the matter calmly, displaying empathy and concern, and avoid handing down moral judgments that may only serve to provoke anger and defiance, further alienating your child.

If you feel the matter has progressed beyond your child’s control, we can help. At HarrisKramer & Liston we work with numerous professionals who are well versed in addiction treatments. Our consultation begins with a phone call or an email. Visit our website to learn more at www.HarrisKramer.com or give us a call at 914-401-4442.