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Why parents should worry about teen vaping

Bashar Alkinj, MD

Vaping among teenagers surged 78 percent between 2017 and 2018, meaning more teenagers than ever are putting their health at risk. The problem? Public health experts don’t yet know what all those risks are—and they could be serious. We sat down with Dr. Bashar Alkinj, a pulmonologist at Vancouver Clinic, to discuss the dangers of juuling.

Q: Why should parents take teen e-cigarette use seriously?

Dr. Alkinj: We are seeing a renormalization of smoking behavior. We don’t want to reach the point where smoking e-cigarettes is considered okay the same way smoking regular cigarettes was considered okay. E-cigarettes contain nicotine, which is addictive and could lead teens to develop nicotine dependence. This raises their risk of using traditional cigarettes in the future. Many young users either don’t realize that the products contain nicotine or don’t understand how much there is. In one study, some 60 percent of teens incorrectly reported that e-cigarettes were made of mostly flavoring. What’s more, it’s not just an e-cigarette. It contains chemicals that we do not completely understand. Smoking them poses unknown long-term health risks.

Q: What makes vaping so attractive to teens?

Dr. Alkinj: Robust marketing and advertising campaigns and range of appealing flavors. One study found that 43 percent of young people tried e-cigarettes because of the fun flavors. Many teens think that vaping is less harmful than smoking traditional cigarettes. The cheaper cost and the pleasant smell of e-cigarettes compared with tobacco’s unpleasant smell are also factors.

Q: What do doctors think are some of the consequences?

Dr. Alkinj: In the short term, e-cigarette smoking causes inflammation in the lungs. This could lead to a cough and increased phlegm production, and make asthma control more difficult. The nicotine in e-cigarettes can cause not only nicotine addiction, but changes in brain development. Adolescent exposure to nicotine increases the risk of mood and attention problems. Finally, little is known about the long-term safety of the glycerol and flavoring used in e-cigarette liquids. While we may be able to safely consume those materials by mouth, the simple act of heating them to make vapor may make them carcinogenic. They could increase the risk of lung and other cancers.

Q: How long will it be until we know how vaping impacts people’s health?

Dr. Alkinj: It’s still early on and the products haven’t been on the market long enough to know the consequences. It took us decades of research and data collection to figure out that smoking cigarettes is harmful. In the meantime, we have to find a way to prevent teens from vaping and educate them about the potential risks. It’s wise to notice the parallels between what’s happening now and what happened with regular cigarettes in the past. This is how the marketing started for regular cigarettes. Some e-cigarette companies are owned by big tobacco companies. That should tell us something.

Q: What can parents and schools do to prevent teens from vaping?

Dr. Alkinj: Parents can educate their kids about the risks of vaping and support school policies that keep vaping off school grounds. Similarly, schools can support education programs that teach parents and students about the risks of vaping.