In the past few years, vape shops have popped up all over the U.S. Originally hailed as a safe way for adult cigarette users to quit smoking, now e-cigarettes are gaining traction as long-term nicotine sources among teenagers and young adults.
A research team from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) surveyed middle and high school students about various forms of nicotine use. Between 2013 and 2015, the number of middle and high school students who had ever tried e-cigarettes increased by about 20%. According to this data, over 500,000 middle schoolers and over 1.6 million high school students currently used electronic cigarettes. Close to half of the kids surveyed said they were currently using two or more tobacco products. Among these student smokers, vapes were the most popular.
While e-cigarettes are considered a safer alternative than cigarettes, public health officials have a job convincing people that “safer” does not mean “safe.” E-cigarettes may not have the same toxins as cigarettes, but they do contain chemicals that can damage the body and brain. An education campaign endorsed by the U.S. Surgeon General details the harmful ingredients common in e-cigarettes such as ultra-fine particles that can damage the lungs, flavorants linked to lung disease, and nicotine.
Scientific literature has yet to define precisely how drug addiction alters the brain during development, particularly during adolescence. But scientists know that nicotine targets systems in the brain vital for learning, memory and attention. Some studies indicate that nicotine addiction during adolescence can inhibit the development of learning and attention, which in turn could lead to poorer performance in school. Nicotine, at high doses, may also cause further mental health challenges in later years. E-cigarette specifically have not been impugned yet, but the research is still early.
Another concern with e-cigarettes is the potential to ingest heavy metals including lead.
Another concern with e-cigarettes is the potential to ingest heavy metals including lead. In a study published this month in Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers found traces of nickel, chromium, lead, and magnesium, transferred from the heated metal coil, in the aerosol of the majority of samples tested. These metals, toxic when inhaled, occurred in higher concentrations than those allowed by the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry and the Environmental Protection Agency. These findings still need to be replicated and the clinical implications defined, but they should be taken into consideration by those using and recommending e-cigarettes.
With so many surveyed teens reporting concurrent use of two or more tobacco products, public health messaging needs to become more consistent about the benefits and harms related to e-cigarette use.