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The dangers of electronic cigarettes for kids and teens

By Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd, Children’s Minnesota pediatrician and director of medical education

Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, were a hot discussion topic at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) annual conference – and for a good reason. These battery-powered smoking devices are a big concern for pediatricians and parents alike – this includes e-cigarettes as well as vaporizers, vape pens, e-cigars and e-hookahs. Unfortunately, we know nearly 1 in 4 teens currently use these products. Here are highlights from what we learned from AAP for parents and caregivers.

While the negative health impacts of cigarettes are well-known, the dangers of e-cigarettes aren’t so obvious, and more teens are now using e-cigarettes than traditional cigarettes. The reality is e-cigarettes are not safe. The solution used in e-cigarettes contains harmful chemicals, including some that cause cancer, and the vapor from these products can hurt growing lungs. E-cigarettes also contain nicotine, which is not only addictive but can harm brain development.

Possibly the most dangerous part of e-cigarettes is that they are designed to appeal to children and teens, with flavors like chocolate, bubble-gum and cherry. Similarly, advertising for these products is targeted towards kids and teens. Research shows that middle and high school students who are exposed to advertising for these products are more likely to use e-cigarettes.

There are myths that e-cigarette use doesn’t lead to traditional cigarette use down the road, and even that people trying to quit smoking traditional cigarettes can or should use e-cigarettes to quit. Both of these statements are false. Research demonstrated that children and teens who use e-cigarettes are more likely to smoke traditional cigarettes in the future. Also, e-cigarettes should never be used by people trying to quit smoking traditional cigarettes; in fact, people are less likely to quit if they’re using an e-cigarette.

Another hidden danger is the solutions used in e-cigarettes, which can poison you or your child if your skin is exposed to the chemicals or if they are swallowed. Less than half a teaspoon of nicotine can be deadly if a child swallows it, and other symptoms of nicotine poisoning may include sweating, dizziness, vomiting and increased heart rate. In recent years, the number of calls to poison control related to e-cigarettes have skyrocketed from one per month in 2010 to 215 per month in 2015. More than half of these calls involved children less than five years old. To help combat these dangers, liquid nicotine is required to be sold in childproof packaging. If there’s an e-cigarette smoker in your household keep smoking devices in safe place, out of a toddlers’ or children’ reach. Never expose children to e-cigarette use, just as we would recommend preventing exposure to cigarettes, cigars or illicit drugs. Secondhand smoke or vapor from e-cigarettes is harmful to developing lungs.

As with traditional smoking, the best way to protect your child is prevention. Limit your child’s exposure to e-cigarettes – either through advertising or second-hand smoke – to increase the odds that they’ll never start. Having conversations with your children about the dangers of smoking from an early age is also a useful tool in your prevention toolkit, and expand the conversation to include cigarettes but also e-cigarettes and “vaping.” If you smoke, quit. It isn’t easy, but children respond best when there is consistency between what you say and what you do.

If your teen does smoke, focus on helping them develop a quit plan, keep them busy and serve as a support team for your child on their smoking cessation journey. Talk to your child’s pediatrician for guidance on how to tackle this subject with your child.

Check out our educational materials for more information about e-cigarettes and how to keep your child from using them.

Angela Kade Goepferd, MD
Angela Kade Goepferd, MD
Kristin Tesmer