The vaping epidemic in youth – why is this happening and why should we care?

Most smokers light up their first cigarette in their teenage years. In recent years, however, youngsters have replaced cigarettes with their electronic counterparts, which are referred to as “vapes”. Given the well-known dangers of tobacco smoking, that must be a good development, right? Let’s find out.

This post is also available in Dutch.

Most smokers light up their first cigarette in their teenage years. In recent years, however, youngsters have replaced cigarettes with their electronic counterparts, which are referred to as “vapes”. Given the well-known dangers of tobacco smoking, that must be a good development, right? Let’s find out.

First of all, why do young people still smoke?

Young people smoke due to various reasons. Their parent or friend may be a smoker and they may want to do it to fit in or just out of curiosity. They may enjoy the mouthfeel, the “buzz”, or the activity itself. Furthermore, smoking can serve as a rite of passage into adulthood, and perhaps it helps cope with teen angst. Since teenagers are more likely to suffer severe nicotine dependency and are often unable to quit, helping them at this stage is vital.

Vaping to the rescue

A vape is an electronic device that heats a liquid and turns it into aerosol. This liquid often contains nicotine, flavoring, chemicals and can contain other drugs such as marijuana.

Vaping is widely advertised as a healthier alternative that can help people quit smoking cigarettes. Perhaps it is therefore not surprising that we are witnessing a dramatic rise in the popularity of vaping. In 2019, more than 1 out of 4 US high school students reported having vaped in the previous 30 days. That’s nearly 5 times more than those who smoked cigarettes.

Clearly, vaping appeals to young people. Flavored e-cigarettes that take the shape of standard objects like USBs are tasty and easily go unnoticed. Moreover, vaping is an increasingly popular topic on social media, where they were even claimed to be health-enhancing or harmless.

But is vaping really such a good idea?

Although vaping is indeed is less dangerous than cigarettes (which kill half of its users), it’s far from harmless.

We do not yet know the long-term consequences of vaping. What we do know, however, is that vaping carries serious health risks, especially for young people. Besides injuries caused by the explosion of vaping devices, let’s explore some of the health dangers of vaping.

Vaping liquid contains toxic chemicals

With a lack of regulation in many countries, ingredients of the vaping juice are not fully disclosed and often vary greatly. A cocktail of harmful and sometimes illegal substances was found in vaping juice which could cause, among other harms, lung disease (e.g., vitamin E acetate) or cancer (e.g., formaldehyde). This further predisposes smokers to severe respiratory illness due to infectious agents, such as the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which prompted several publications advising against smoking and vaping during the current pandemic.

Vaping is as addictive, if not more, than cigarette smoking

Vapes, like cigarettes, contain nicotine, which is highly addictive. What’s more, many nicotine-free vapes were found to actually contain nicotine. Also, since vapers can modify their vape and cartridges, they can now get an even stronger hit of nicotine.

The behavioral and pharmacologic processes underlying nicotine addiction are shared with those of cocaine or heroin addiction. Within 10 seconds, nicotine reaches the brain and causes a release of a variety of neurotransmitters (the drug-induced reward). Other ingredients like nornicotine can also contribute to the addictive effects.

Nicotine may also increase the risk of a lifelong addiction to other drugs. Growing evidence even indicates that young people who vape may be more likely to smoke cigarettes as adults.

Nicotine in itself is harmful

Nicotine affects the developing brain and may result in impulsivity and attention deficit that persists into adulthood. Furthermore, through activation of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors and its carcinogenic metabolites, nicotine has been shown to promote the development and progression of cancer and interfere with the effectiveness of chemo-therapy. This tumor-promoting effect is seen in various cancers, such as in the lungs and gastrointestinal system. Nicotine contributes to different heart, vessel, gastrointestinal diseases, and the list goes on.

We are yet to grasp the risks of vaping

We are on the upwards slope of the vaping trend. Vaping is not as bad as cigarette smoking albeit far from safe. There’s a lot we currently do not know, and it may take a while before we understand the full scope of its health effects. Stay informed, spread awareness to the new generation of smokers, and stay safe!

Guest author: Rushd Al-Shama
Buddy: Jeroen
Editor: Jill
Translator: Wessel
Editor Translation: Jill

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