E-Cigarettes: Talk to Youth About the Risks

If anyone can speak firsthand about the significant rise in e-cigarette use by kids, teens, and young adults, it’s someone who works with them every day. Lauren W., a high school teacher in Pennsylvania, often hears her students talking about using e-cigarettes. But when it comes to the dangers of nicotine and addiction for young people, she does not believe they really understand how dangerous e-cigarettes are for their health.

“I talk to them about the risks all the time,” she says, “and those talks reveal that they have never really thought about it.”

As someone who can influence young people, Lauren is doing what she can to teach them about the harms e-cigarette use can have on them. “They are always interested when I pull up research and start listing off findings,” she says.

This fall, as young people get ready to return to school, you have the power to start the conversation. Whether you are a parent, a teacher, a coach—or even a health care professional helping to make sure kids start the new school year in good health—you have an important part to play when it comes to talking to kids about the harms of e-cigarettes.

Teenage school kids smiling to camera in school corridor
Skyrocketing Numbers
Blackboard with graph and a rocket with the text: E-cigarette Use Skyrocketed Among High Schoolers

Since 2014, e-cigarettes have been the most commonly used tobacco product pdf icon[PDF–808 KB] among US middle and high school students. Between 2017 and 2018 alone, the number of youth who used e-cigarettes went up by 1.5 million. In fact, the US Surgeon Generalexternal icon has called e-cigarette use by youth an “epidemic,” and warned that it threatens decades of progress toward making sure fewer young people use tobacco.

Research also shows that e-cigarette advertising uses many of the same themes that have led to cigarette smoking among young people. In 2016, nearly 7 out of 10 US middle and high school students saw ads for e-cigarettes pdf icon[PDF–3.69 MB] in stores, on the Internet, on TV, or in magazines or newspapers.

Advertising can also make e-cigarette use look harmless for young people. Lauren, the high school teacher, says that most of her students know that regular cigarettes cause disease and even death. However, she says most of them don’t know that nicotine in e-cigarettes can harm brain development, or that e-cigarettes can be dangerous to youth for other reasons, too.

Nicotine Can Harm Developing Brains
Teacher stands at the back of her high school class

Most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, the highly addictive drug in tobacco. Nicotine is especially harmful to young people. The human brain keeps developing until around the age of 25. Using products with nicotine under age 25 can harm the part of the brain responsible for memory, attention, and learning.

Many young people who use e-cigarettes also smoke regular cigarettes. There is evidence that young people who use e-cigarettes may be more likely to smoke regular cigarettes in the future. Also, even though the liquid that e-cigarettes heat to form an aerosol (vapor) has fewer harmful ingredients than cigarette smoke, it still contains harmful ingredients—including heavy metals and even cancer-causing chemicals—that can be breathed deep into the lungs. The part of the e-cigarette that heats up may also explode or cause serious burns.

Be Aware of “Hidden” E-Cigarettes
Blackboard showing laptop with flash drive and the text: Your child's e-cigarette may be disguised as a USB flash drive

If you work with young people, you may have seen an e-cigarette device without even knowing it. The most often sold e-cigarette in the United States is a brand called JUUL, which looks like a USB flash drive. JUUL “pods,” which contain liquid heated by the device, have as much nicotine as a pack of 20 cigarettes. They also come in flavors, which can make them more appealing to young people. E-cigarettes can also look like other everyday items, such as highlighters, credit cards, remote controls, and pens.

“One of our graduates who I’m still in touch with tells me he once left his vape in my classroom,” Lauren W. says. “Since it looked like a USB drive, and this was before I had any idea what vaping was, I just gave it back to him and never even thought twice about it.”

Everyone Has a Part to Play

That’s why it’s up to you to educate yourself about e-cigarettes. Know what to say when the topic comes up. The earlier and more often you speak with young people about e-cigarettes, the more likely they are to listen.

It’s important that schools, community centers, and other places where young people gather during or after school hours have tobacco-free campus policies. If there is already a tobacco-free policy in place, make sure students know about it and that it is enforced. School or community events should also set a good example by not accepting sponsorship from tobacco or e-cigarette companies.

Young people are also more likely to pay attention if the adults in their lives who they trust and respect are willing to talk. Teachers and administrators can use health classes and assemblies this upcoming school year to invite students to ask questions about e-cigarettes. There are many e-cigarette prevention programs teachers can use in their classrooms to let students know about the risks of e-cigarette use.

It’s also important to give students who do use e-cigarettes and want to stop the support and resources they need to quit. Many resources are available, including a mobile app to help youth quit using e-cigarettes.

Finally, if you use any tobacco products, commit to quit. Kids are more likely to use tobacco products if others around them do. So lead by example – be tobacco-free. As students return to classes this school year, you can help make sure they are more informed and confident than ever about making healthy choices.