While cigarette use for high school students is at an all-time low (8%), 21% of students in the United States report using e-cigarettes in the past month, which is the highest level to date. The use of e-cigarettes--electronic cigarettes often called vaping--has increased tremendously for young people in the past few years, making health care professionals and parents question its potential harm on health.
Tobacco use kills almost half a million people a year in the United States. While they are still considered a tobacco product, e-cigarettes are a way to get nicotine into the body without smoking a burned tobacco product, thus reducing the risks associated with combusted tobacco like exposure to carbon monoxide."
Michael Steinberg, MD, MPH, professor of medicine, Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and director of The Tobacco Dependence Program at the Rutgers University Center for Tobacco Studies
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine published a report in 2018 that concludes these products have been proven to have less toxic health outcomes than traditional cigarettes. However, Dr. Steinberg notes that while e-cigarettes are less toxic than cigarettes, it does not necessarily make them safe, stating, "less harmful doesn't mean harmless."
The biggest concern, according to Dr. Steinberg, is the appeal to young people and lack of long-term research studying the adverse health outcomes of vaping. Not only are the devices often marked to young people with vibrant colors and fun flavors, devices like JUUL do not look like regular cigarettes and are modern and more inconspicuous.
Youth are more susceptible to nicotine, which is found in e-cigarettes, as their brains are still developing into their 20's. Further, the levels of nicotine vary greatly between different devices, with products like JUUL having equal or higher levels of nicotine than traditional cigarettes.
"There are two things I would recommend for parents regarding e-cigarettes-;educating yourself on potential risks and practicing good communication with your children. Ask for their thoughts and answer their questions," says Dr. Steinberg.
While research in the report outlined potential risks for young people, it also suggests a potential benefit of vaping for current adult smokers.
"Our hope is that e-cigarettes will help adults stop smoking tobacco cigarettes, and evidence from the report shows that it does aid in smoking cessation. By being less harmful than regular tobacco products, these products hold the promise of a less harmful alternative for the cigarette smoker who is unwilling to quit."
The report found that completely substituting e-cigarettes for combustible tobacco cigarettes reduces a person's risk to toxins and carcinogens. However, for the youth population, there is a fear that because nicotine is addictive, young people using e-cigarettes could transition to traditional tobacco products. Dr. Steinberg explains that e-cigarettes could introduce young people to nicotine who wouldn't have otherwise been exposed, but it is hard to determine.
He concludes, "New research into e-cigarettes is rapidly advancing, adding to the scientific knowledge base. More research is needed, especially to analyze the long-term effects on both new users of e-cigarettes and those undergoing smoking cessation."