Vaping: The new wave of nicotine addiction

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Another worrisome trend involving electronic nicotine delivery systems is their marketing and branding, which appear to be aimed directly at adolescents and young adults. Juul and other similar products cannot be sold to anyone under the age of 18 (or 21 in 18 states, including California, Massachusetts, New York, and now Ohio). Despite this, Juul and similar products continue to increase in popularity among middle school and high school students.57

While smoking cessation and health improvement are cited as reasons for vaping among middle-aged and older adults, adolescents and young adults more often cite flavor, enjoyment, peer use, and curiosity as reasons for use.

Adolescents are more likely to report interest in trying a vape product flavored with menthol or fruit than tobacco, and commonly hold the belief that fruit-flavored e-cigarettes are less harmful than tobacco-flavored e-cigarettes.58 Harrell et al59 polled youth and young adults who used flavored e-cigarettes, and 78% said they would no longer use the product if their preferred flavor were not available. In September 2019, Michigan became the first state to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes in stores and online. Similar bills have been introduced in California, Massachusetts, and New York.60

Myths and misperceptions abound among youth regarding smoking vs vaping. Young people view regular cigarette smoking negatively, as causing cancer, bad breath, and asthma exacerbations. Meanwhile, they believe marijuana is safer and less addictive than traditional cigarette smoking.61 Youth exposed to e-cigarette advertisements viewed e-cigarettes as healthier, more enjoyable, “cool,” safe, and fun.61 The overall public health impact of increasing initiation of smoking, particularly among youth and young adults, should not be underestimated.


Cigarette smoking has been banned in many public places, in view of a large body of scientific evidence about the harmful effects of secondhand smoke. Advocates for allowing vaping in public places say that vaping emissions do not harm bystanders, but evidence is insufficient to support this claim.62 One study showed that passive exposure to e-cigarette aerosol generated increases in serum levels of cotinine (a nicotine metabolite) similar to those with passive exposure to conventional cigarette smoke.5

Accidental nicotine poisoning in children as a result of ingesting e-cigarette liquid is also a major concern,63 particularly with sweet flavors such as bubblegum or cheesecake that may be attractive to children.

Calls to US poison control centers with respect to e-cigarettes and vaping increased from 1 per month in September 2010 to 215 in February 2014, with 51% involving children under age 5.64 This trend resulted in the Child Nicotine Poisoning Prevention Act, which passed in 2015 and went into effect in 2016, requiring packaging that is difficult to open for children under age 5.5

Device malfunctions or battery failures have led to explosions that have resulted in substantial injuries to users, as well as house and car fires.49


There are currently no established treatment approaches for adolescents who have become addicted to vaping. A review of the literature regarding treatment modalities used to address adolescent use of tobacco and marijuana provides insight that options such as nicotine replacement therapy and counseling modalities such as cognitive behavioral therapy may be helpful in treating teen vaping addiction. However, more research is needed to determine the effectiveness of these treatments in youth addicted to vaping.

Given that youth who vape even once are more likely to try other types of tobacco, we recommend that parents and healthcare providers start conversations by asking what the young person has seen or heard about vaping. Young people can also be asked what they think the school’s response should be: Do they think vaping should be banned in public places, as cigarettes have been banned? What about the carbon footprint? What are their thoughts on the plastic waste, batteries, and other toxins generated by the e-cigarette industry?

New US laws ban the sale of e-cigarettes and vaping devices to minors in stores and online. These policies are modeled in many cases on environmental control policies that have been previously employed to reduce tobacco use, particularly by youth. For example, changing laws to mandate sales only to individuals age 21 and older in all states can help to decrease access to these products among middle school and high school students.

As with tobacco cessation, education will not be enough. Support of legislation that bans vaping in public places, increases pricing to discourage adolescent use, and other measures used successfully to decrease conventional cigarette smoking can be deployed to decrease the public health impact of e-cigarettes. We recommend further regulation of specific harmful chemicals and clear, detailed ingredient labeling to increase consumer understanding of the risks associated with these products. Additionally, we recommend eliminating flavored e-cigarettes, which are the most appealing type for young users, and raising prices of e-cigarettes and similar products to discourage use by youth.

If current cigarette smokers want to use e-cigarettes to quit, we recommend that clinicians counsel them to eventually completely stop use of traditional cigarettes and switch to using e-cigarettes, instead of becoming a dual user of both types of products or using e-cigarettes indefinitely. After making that switch, they should then work to gradually taper usage and nicotine addiction by reducing the amount of nicotine in the e-liquid. Clinicians should ask patients about use of e-cigarettes and vaping devices specifically, and should counsel nonsmokers to avoid initiation of use.


Data about respiratory effects, secondhand exposure, and long-term smoking cessation efficacy are still limited, and it remains as yet unknown what combinations of solvents, flavorings, and nicotine in a given e-liquid will result in the most harmful or least harmful effects. In addition, while much of the information about the safety of these components has been obtained using in vitro or mouse models, increasing reports of serious respiratory illness and rising numbers of deaths linked to vaping make it clear that these findings likely translate to harmful effects in humans.

E-cigarettes may ultimately prove to be less harmful than traditional cigarettes, but it seems likely that with further time and research, serious health risks of e-cigarette use will continue to emerge.

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