Who knew that in today’s classroom, students in middle school or high school could sneak a hit of nicotine from something that looks like a flash drive, or a pen, or lipstick.
They can, and they do.
Nearly a quarter of high school seniors say they vape daily, and more than 1 in 10 eighth-graders say they they’ve vaped in the past year, according to the 2017 Monitoring the Future survey conducted by the University of Michigan. “Vaping” is done with electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, that heat nicotine-infused liquid into a vapor, which is then inhaled by the user. There’s no smoke, just flavored vapor that can smell like strawberry, cotton candy or creme brulee.
Why so much adult hand-wringing about this adolescent craze? Vaping’s sort of like smoking cigarettes, but without the lung-clogging, cancer-causing tar, right?
Not exactly. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the long-term health effects of vaping, one reason why parents and school officials should be more hands-on about reversing vaping’s popularity among teens.
Along with nicotine, vaping liquids contain a mix of additives, including propylene glycol and glycerol. When heated, those chemicals can form carcinogenic compounds. Then there’s the nicotine itself. A recent New York Times article about vaping among teens reported that school administrators increasingly see signs of nicotine addiction among students who vape. One student cited in the story asked her teacher for permission to stand in the back of the classroom and shake her foot when she felt the urge to vape.
“I’m afraid that we’re going to be hooking a new generation of kids on nicotine, with potentially unknown risks,” Dr. Mark Rubenstein, a pediatrics professor at the University of California, San Francisco, told the reporter. “We just don’t know what the risks of inhaling all these flavorings and dyes are, and what we do know is already pretty scary.”
Especially worrisome: growing evidence that vaping among teens leads to smoking cigarettes.
America has made massive strides in turning the tide against smoking among teens. In the late 1990s, a quarter of high school seniors smoked, according to University of Michigan researchers. Today, that number’s been whittled to 5 percent. Right now, teens who start to vape are, for the most part, not current or former cigarette smokers. But the 2016 Monitoring the Future study found that, a year after nonsmoking high school seniors began vaping, they were four times as likely to have smoked a cigarette than someone who wasn’t vaping.
The disturbing paradox: Among grown-ups, vaping is a means to break away from cigarettes. Among teens, vaping’s becoming a gateway to tobacco smoking.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Today’s vaping by the 3-D printer is yesterday’s smoking in the bathroom. But it’s a problem that could steamroll into a full-blown health crisis if parents, schools and public health officials don’t intervene. Vaping may prove to have, or not have, long-term health consequences. But we do know about nicotine and the harm it can do. That alone should be enough to make vaping among teens a trend that vanishes like a puff of creme brulee.