Teen smoking e-cigarette
A teen secretly smoking an e-cigarette. Photo via Pixabay

As students go back to school this fall, parents, teachers, coaches, community members and volunteers can help kids and young adults make smart choices for their health — including avoiding e-cigarettes.

About 1 in 5 high school students and 1 in 20 middle school students reported using e-cigarettes in 2020. As they start a new semester in the weeks ahead, now is an important time to help them understand the serious health risks of vaping and e-cigarettes, as well as ways to avoid social pressure from peers and aggressive marketing efforts from tobacco companies.

California State PTA members adopted a resolution in support of measures that prohibit the sale, marketing and distribution of flavored tobacco and vapes or e-cigarettes.

Parents and guardians across California are extremely concerned with the new methods used by the tobacco industry to target their children and PTA members overwhelmingly support ending the sale of flavored tobacco products.

Dangers of E-Cigarette Use

Youth e-cigarette use more than doubled from 2017 to 2019, leading the U.S. Surgeon General to declare it an “epidemic.” And while rates dipped slightly in 2020, 3.6 million U.S. kids still used e-cigarettes.

The new 2019-2020 California Student Tobacco Survey reported that 8.2% of high schoolers currently use e-cigarettes, with nearly 25% of those using on 20 or more days a month. Overall tobacco use — including cigarettes, cigars, hookah and e-cigarettes — was reported by 9.7% of high schoolers.

The U.S. Surgeon General has warned that any tobacco use by teens and young adults, including e-cigarettes, is unsafe. Nearly all e-cigarette products contain nicotine, which is the same addictive drug found in other tobacco products, including cigarettes and cigars. Unfortunately, the nicotine content information on e-cigarette packaging is often misleading or inaccurate.

Studies show that a single pod of e-liquid juice can contain as much nicotine as a full pack of 20 cigarettes. Not only is inhaling nicotine harmful on its own, but when kids “puff and pass” these devices, they could also be spreading COVID-19 — as well as other highly contagious illnesses like mononucleosis — if devices are contaminated.

Nicotine is highly addictive and can harm adolescent brain development, which continues well into the mid-20s. Compared with older adults, the brains of young and young adults are more vulnerable to nicotine, which can have harmful effects on the parts of the brain responsible for attention, learning, mood and impulse control.

In addition, youth and young adults who use e-cigarettes have an increased risk of trying regular cigarettes or other tobacco products. Nicotine can also prime the brain for addiction to other drugs.

Do Your Homework on E-Cigarettes

One of the best ways for parents and others to help youth is to have informed discussions about e-cigarettes. To do this, parents need to know what they are and what to watch for in product packaging and marketing efforts.

E-cigarettes come in many shapes and sizes, as tobacco companies use new technologies to develop new products. The two most common types of e-cigarettes used by our children are devices with prefilled pods (or cartridges) like Juul and disposable products like PuffBar. They may look like small USB flash drives, writing pens, highlighters or other everyday items, and are easily disguised among school supplies.

E-cigarettes come in thousands of flavors, including fruit, candy, mint, dessert and menthol. These flavors make the addictive products more appealing to kids. 96% of California high school e-cigarette users report using flavored products.

The 2019-2020 California Student Tobacco Survey reported that 72% of high schoolers believe that youth use e-cigarettes because they “come in lots of flavors.”  The data showed that 63.9% of current high school-aged e-cigarette users used fruit flavors, 13% candy/sweet and 14.7% mint or menthol.

Yum or yuck? It’s up to the adults in the room to steer kids away from these deceptive devices — and to set a good example by not using tobacco products. Youth and young adults look to parents, teachers and coaches as role models. It’s important to maintain a tobacco-free environment and ensure that young people are not exposed to the secondhand emissions from any tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.

Also, it’s important for parents and other adults to know how youth are accessing e-cigarettes and other tobacco products. Among current California high school vapers surveyed last year, 48.8% reported not paying for their vapes — or in other words, they were given or taken by a friend or schoolmate.

Of the 51% who reported paying for them, over one-third (36.1%) said they bought them from an individual and 27.1% purchased vapes from a store, with tobacco/smoke shops and vape shops listed as the most common sources. Another 22.5% asked someone who was older to buy them.

Talk to Kids Today

Heading back to school is always a time of transition and presents a timely opportunity for parents to talk to their kids about the serious short-term and long-term health risks associated with vaping and e-cigarettes.

Parents also should be on the lookout for the telltale signs that their child may be vaping and possibly experiencing nicotine-related symptoms, including increased irritability, mood swings, unexplained cough and increased thirst.

If a parent suspects their child is addicted to e-cigarettes, they should seek treatment and counseling from a health provider.

There are tons of free resources available to learn more about e-cigarette products, their health risks and ways to help guide an informed discussion with youth, including the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, California’s Flavors Hook Kids campaign and via the Surgeon General’s website. And the California State PTA website capta.org.

This fall, as you shop for new clothes and school supplies, start up with sports practices and club activities, be sure to put a primer on e-cigarettes at the top of the back-to-school to-do list. Don’t miss this chance to discuss the dangers of e-cigarettes with your kids — their health and futures may depend on it.

Carol Green is president of the California State PTA and an ACS-CAN volunteer. She resides in San Diego County.