Child Psychiatry Consult

Teen e-cigarette use: A public health crisis


After 2 decades of steady decline in adolescent and young adult use of tobacco products, e-cigarettes have dramatically altered the landscape of substance use in youth. E-cigarette use among teens has been on the rise for years but the recent exponential increase is unprecedented. From 2017 to 2018, adolescent e-cigarette use had the largest year-to-year increase (78%, from 12% to 21%) of any individual substance or class of substances at any time during the past 2 decades of nationwide monitoring.1 This has appropriately caught the nation’s attention. In 2016, Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, MD, commissioned an extensive report about electronic cigarettes, and in 2018 Surgeon General Jerome Adams, MD, MPH, issued an advisory declaring e-cigarettes a public health crisis for adolescents.2

A young woman uses a vaping device licsiren/iStock/Getty Images

E-cigarettes have received attention as a possible boon to adult cigarette smokers seeking a less hazardous product. We can consider the use of tobacco products along a continuum from smoked tobacco, dual use (both smoked tobacco and electronic nicotine delivery), electronic nicotine delivery only, and finally, nonuse. For some adults, transitioning from smoked tobacco products to electronic delivery systems has been a step toward less overall harm from substance use, with a small minority of that population going on to achieve abstinence from all nicotine products.3 For youth and teens, the story has been the opposite. With the rapid rise of e-cigarettes, adolescents overwhelmingly have been moving in the wrong direction at each potential step along this continuum.4 Less than 8% of teens who use e-cigarettes indicated that smoking cessation is a factor in their use.5 An estimated 1.3 million U.S. teens now are dependent or at high risk for dependence upon nicotine because of e-cigarette use. Furthermore, these teens are at a fourfold higher risk of progression to cigarette use, compared with their peers.6

One product in particular gives us information as to why this trend has accelerated so rapidly. Juul, now the sales leader among electronic nicotine delivery systems, rose from approximately 25% to a dominant 75% of market share in just over 1 fiscal year after a social media campaign targeted toward youth and young adults. The device is shaped like an elongated flash drive, is marketed as “sleek,” “looking cool,” and being “super easy” to use. This product touts its use of nicotine salts that can deliver higher concentrations of nicotine more rapidly to mimic the experience of smoking a cigarette as closely as possible. The fruity flavors in Juul “pods” and many other devices also appeal to teens. Many youth are left misinformed, thinking they are using a relatively harmless alternative to cigarettes.

E-cigarette use in youth carries many risks. Among the physical risks is exposure to harmful chemicals (even if less numerous than smoked tobacco products) such as diacetyl (a known cause of bronchiolitis obliterans, or “popcorn lung”), formaldehyde, acrolein, benzene, and metals such as nickel, tin and lead.7 “Safer than cigarettes” is a low bar indeed. Cognitive and emotional risks of early nicotine exposure include poor focus and attention, permanent lowering of impulse control, and a higher risk of mood and anxiety disorders.

Furthermore, nicotine is a gateway drug, with a clearly understood molecular basis for how it can potentiate the effects of later used substances, especially stimulants such as cocaine.8 The gateway and priming effect is compounded for youth because of ongoing brain development and plasticity during teen years. E-cigarette use also is associated with other risk behaviors including a manyfold higher likelihood of binge drinking, having multiple sexual partners in a short period of time, and using other substances such as cannabis, cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin or nonprescribed opioids.9 An electronic system for vaporization also presents a risk for use of other substances. In just 1 year from 2017 to 2018, marijuana “vaping” increased by more than 50% among all ages surveyed.10

Pediatric health care providers are essential educators for both teens and parents regarding the risks of e-cigarette use. Many youth don’t know what they’re using; 66% of youth reported that the vapors they were inhaling contained only flavoring. Only 13% reported they were inhaling nicotine.10 In stark contrast to these self-reports, all Juul “pods” contain nicotine. As has been a pattern with nationwide surveys of substance use for decades, adolescent use is inversely correlated with perception of risk; 70% of 8th-12th graders do not foresee great harm in regular e-cigarette use. In addition, adolescents use substances less often when they know their parents disapprove. Parents also must be taught about the risks of e-cigarette use and can be provided with resources and taught effective strategies if they have difficulty communicating their disapproval to their children.

Age-appropriate screening in primary care settings must include specific language regarding the use of electronic cigarettes, with questions about “vaping” and “juuling.” After screening, a brief intervention includes a clear recommendation against e-cigarette use and education about the risks. Discussions with teens may be more effective with emphasis on issues that resonate with youth such as the financial cost, loss of freedom when dependence develops, and the fact that their generation is once again being targeted by the tobacco industry. Referral for further treatment, including individual and group therapy as well as family-focused interventions, should be considered for teens who use daily, use other substances regularly, or could benefit from treatment for co-occurring mental health disorders.

Electronic cigarette use should not be recommended as a smoking cessation strategy for teens.11 Pediatric health care providers must advocate for regulation of these products, including increasing the legal age of purchase and banning flavoring in e-cigarettes products, Internet sales, and advertisements targeted to youth.

Dr. Peter R. Jackson, department of psychiatry, University of Vermont, Burlington

Dr. Peter R. Jackson

The rapid rise in e-cigarette use among teens is of great concern. As with all classes of substances, early initiation of nicotine drastically increases the risk of developing a substance use disorder and portends a prolonged course and greater accumulation of adverse consequences. There is an urgent need for education, prevention, and early identification of e-cigarette use to protect the current and future well-being of children and adolescents.


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