By P. Casey Arrillaga, LCSW, LCDC
Teen and young adult use of electronic nicotine products, commonly known as “vaping,” has been growing at an alarming rate, so much so that many healthcare professionals are referring to teen and young adult vaping as an epidemic. In this post, we’ll explore what vaping entails, how it affects teens and young adults, and how it can impact other addictions and mental health.
What We Know So Far
Vaping products work by heating liquids and creating a vapor that the user inhales. This is often mistaken for harmless water vapor, but this is a definitely not the case. It almost always contains nicotine, volatile compounds, chemicals known to cause cancer, and even heavy metals such as lead, tin, and nickel. To make things worse, flavorings are often added to make the vapor sweet and more appealing. These flavorings, which are part of what make vaping appealing to teens and young adults, are not only a way to tempt kids to use vaping products, but the flavorings themselves use chemicals that are linked to serious lung disease.
To compound matters, most teens who use vaping products are introduced by friends and peers, and they see it as cool and a way to gain social status. They don’t realize that what they are trying is potentially very addictive. Rates of teen vaping are thus growing at a rapid clip, sometimes doubling from one year to the next.
The Center for Disease Control [CDC] rates vaping as harmful at all ages, but particularly dangerous for young people, whose brains and bodies are still developing. This is in part because 99% of all vaping products contain nicotine, even some of those labeled as having “0% nicotine.” Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances known to mankind, and it is associated with a wide range of health problems. Alarmingly, 2 out of 3 teens surveyed who used vaping products did not realize that they contain nicotine. Once hooked on the nicotine in vaping products, these same teens are much more likely to use cigarettes and other tobacco products. Given that about half of all people who use tobacco will die from tobacco-related health conditions, the use of vaping products is a true gateway to the world’s deadliest drug: nicotine.
Vaping can also be a gateway to other drug use as well. The most obvious of these is THC, which is commonly vaped by teens and young adults. Since THC vaping products can look and smell identical to nicotine vaping products, teens may be vaping THC in public or in front of their parents without anyone around them being aware of what it happening. Teens may be introduced to THC use via vaping since the drug is delivered through the already-familiar route of vaping.
While less common, other drugs can be delivered through vaping, posing the danger of teens and young adults ramping up from less to more potent drugs through the same system they already know. Even if this doesn’t happen so directly, adolescent vaping has a high correlation with other drug use and risky sexual behavior.
Nicotine and THC use are also both correlated with mental health problems beyond the addiction risk they pose. This includes depression and anxiety, as well as THC being increasingly associated with psychotic disorders including schizophrenia, which most often shows up during late adolescence.
What to Do if Your Teen or Young Adult Child is Vaping
As with all adolescent drug use, lecturing teens and young adults is not usually effective. Instead, having open dialogue about the risks and offering a listening ear will go much further. Talk to teens about how to tell if use if becoming problematic. Let them know you will support them in getting help if they need it. If vaping is becoming a gateway for other drug use, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with treatment options such as outpatient and residential treatment centers. While they may think you are overreacting by discussing this with them, talking frankly about treatment options before things get out of hand is much easier than trying to decide what to do in the middle of a crisis.
The Bottom Line
Vaping is growing rapidly among teens and young adults. It can lead to addiction and other serious physical and mental health consequences. If you see vaping in teens or young adults in your family, talk frankly but non-judgmentally to them about the risks. Be familiar with treatment options if things start to get worse, because when it comes to addiction, it is always better to be prepared than caught off guard.
About The Author
P. Casey Arrillaga is the Team Leader for Education at Windmill Wellness Ranch, and he is the author of books including “Realistic Hope: The Family Survival Guide for Facing Alcoholism and Other Addictions”. His books, podcast, videos, etc. can be found at CaseyAuthor.com