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What Parents Should Know About E-Cigarettes

Electronic cigarette use is on the rise in the East Bay, including among teens. But are they safe?

The electronic cigarette is an inhaler meant to be a substitute for regular tobacco cigarettes. It seems smokers started puffing them a few years ago, in public places from restaurants to airplanes. Since then, the trend has raised questions about etiquette. But it is now raising questions about health, too, specifically for teens that may be attracted to fruity flavors and false notions about how safe they are.

An example of an e-cigarette and e-liquid

The East Bay is no exception to this trend, and a handful of electronic cigarette stores have opened here in the last year. In May, stores opened in Livermore and Pleasanton, and in early October, another shop opened in Walnut Creek, bringing the count there to three. That’s not to mention to countless glass shops in Berkeley that have been selling the “personal vaporizers” for years.

In September, the Centers for Disease Control published a report based on data from the 2011 and 2012 National Youth Tobacco Survey. What they found is that experimentation and recent use doubled among middle and high school students between 2011 and 2012, and that an estimated 1.78 million students had used e-cigarettes. In other words, 1 out of 10 American high school students used e-cigarettes in 2012, as well as nearly three in 100 middle school students. (Interestingly enough, this rise coincided with a report that stated tobacco-cigarette smoking among eighth-graders, sophomores, and seniors hit an all-time low in 2012.)

According to the numbers, it appears traditional cigarettes are out--but e-cigarettes are in.

Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, describes the increase in use of e-cigarettes among teens as “deeply troubling." “Many teens who start with e-cigarettes may be condemned to struggling with a lifelong addiction to nicotine and conventional cigarettes,” he says. That concern is shared with authors of the National Youth Tobacco Survey.

Obviously, e-cigarette manufacturers don’t market directly to young people, but because cartridges come in kid-friendly flavors like bubble gum, caramel and chocolate, it’s easy to see their appeal to children. Combine that with how easy it is to purchase e-cigarettes online, and you can see how they become very attractive to teens. If your kid walks into a store and tries to buy cigarettes, the law says she or he has to show proof of age, but no such law regulates buying e-cigarettes because they don’t contain tobacco. And let’s not forget that we’ve got stars like Ethan Hawke in ads for e-cigarettes, and Katherine Heigel on David Letterman saying how great they are. 

So, are they safe?

E-cigarettes have a heat source that turns nicotine into vapor, which is then inhaled. Depending on the brand, the cartridges in them typically contain nicotine and flavors like bubble gum, mint, or chocolate.

Electronic cigarettes are not regulated by the FDA, but the agency has said it plans to bring them under its jurisdiction. The FDA and other health experts such as the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, Action on Smoking and Health, and the Center for Tobacco-Free Kids, argue that e-cigarettes aren’t safe, and that, at the very least, more research needs to be done to determine what the dangers may be.

An electronic cigarette can contain as much nicotine as a regular cigarette, or more—amounts vary according by the cartridge. Some contain no nicotine and only have a liquid, so users can have the experience of smoking with no harmful effects. But, the FDA has said that consumers have no way of knowing if other potentially harmful chemicals are being inhaled during use. At least, not yet.

What can parents do?

Remember that the adolescent brain is more susceptible to nicotine than an adult brain, so this trend of rising use is something to be taken seriously. Here are some tips to help in your efforts:

  • Be clear with your kids that smoking of any kind (conventional cigarettes, e-cigarettes, marijuana) is off limits, and include these substances in your household "no tolerance" policy.
  • Educate your kids that e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which is a HIGHLY addictive substance, as well as a stimulant, and overall dangerous drug. They should know that cancer-causing chemicals are found in e-cigarette cartridges. 
  • It can be difficult to know if your kid is using e-cigarettes, because they don’t smell obviously like tobacco or marijuana. However, e-cigarettes have been associated with dry cough, as well as mouth and throat irritation. So if these types of symptoms are persistent in your child, and have no other known cause, you might want to investigate if there has been e-cigarette use.
  • Look up e-cigarettes on Google Images so you are clear about what they look like, as well as the cartridges that go with them, and can identify them, if needed. 

About the author: Abby Medcalf has been in the mental health and addiction field for over 25 years. She holds a masters in counseling psychology and a PhD in organizational psychology. She is a popular keynote speaker regarding parenting, couples, families, and addiction, and has presented at many companies and organizations throughout the United States. Abby has a private practice in Berkeley and also works at New Bridge Foundation, a non-profit drug and alcohol treatment facility in Berkeley. You can contact her at abbymedcalf@mac.com.

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Added: 2017-03-07

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