E-cigarettes and young people: a public health concern

E-cigarettes, devices that typically deliver nicotine, flavorings and other additives to users through an inhaled aerosol, are a rapidly emerging trend especially popular among youth and young adults. These devices are referred to by a variety of names, including “e-cigs,” “e-hookahs,” “mods,” “vape pens,” “vapes” and “tank systems.” E-cigarettes can also be used to deliver other drugs besides nicotine, such as marijuana. The use of these nicotine-delivery systems is commonly known as vaping.

E-cigarettes are now the most commonly used form of tobacco by youth in the U.S. And dual use, or using both e-cigarettes and conventional cigarettes, is common among youth and young adults 18-25 years of age. Reasons reported by young people for using e-cigarettes include curiosity, taste and the belief that e-cigarettes are less harmful than other tobacco products.

Flavored e-cigarettes are very popular, especially with young adults. More than nine of every 10 young adult e-cigarette users said they use e-cigarettes flavored to taste like menthol, alcohol, candy, fruit, chocolate, or other sweets. More than eight of every 10 youth ages 12-17 who use e-cigarettes said they use flavored e-cigarettes.

What is in vaping and e-cigarette aerosol (juice)?

  • Nicotine
  • Ultrafine particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs
  • Flavoring such as diacetyl, a chemical linked to a serious lung disease
  • Volatile organic compounds
  • Cancer-causing chemicals
  • Heavy metals such as nickel, tin and lead

Vaping and e-cigarettes are still fairly new, and scientists are still learning about their long-term health effects. Here is what we know now:

  • Most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which has known health effects.
  • Nicotine is highly addictive.
  • Nicotine is toxic to developing fetuses.
  • Nicotine can harm adolescent brain development, which continues into the early to mid-20s.
  • Nicotine is a health danger for pregnant women and their developing babies.
  • Besides nicotine, e-cigarette aerosol can contain substances that harm the body. This includes cancer-causing chemicals and tiny particles that reach deep into lungs. However, e-cigarette aerosol generally contains fewer harmful chemicals than smoke from burned tobacco products.
  • E-cigarettes can cause unintended injuries. Defective e-cigarette batteries have caused fires and explosions, some of which have resulted in serious injuries. Most explosions happened when the e-cigarette batteries were being charged.
  • In addition, acute nicotine exposure can be toxic. Children and adults have been poisoned by swallowing, breathing, or absorbing e-cigarette liquid through their skin or eyes.

Are vaping and e-cigarettes less harmful than regular cigarettes?

Yes – but that doesn’t mean e-cigarettes are safe. E-cigarette aerosol generally contains fewer toxic chemicals than the deadly mix of 7,000 chemicals in smoke from regular cigarettes. However, e-cigarette aerosol is not harmless. It can contain harmful and potentially harmful substances, including nicotine, heavy metals like lead, volatile organic compounds and cancer-causing agents.

Do vaping and e-cigarettes help adults quit smoking cigarettes?

E-cigarettes are not currently approved by the FDA as a quit smoking aid. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a group of health experts that makes recommendations about preventive health care, has concluded that evidence is insufficient to recommend e-cigarettes for smoking cessation in adults, including pregnant women.

In 2016, a U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on e-cigarette use among youth and young adults became the first report issued by a federal agency that carefully reviewed the public health issue of e-cigarettes and their impact on our nation’s young people. Because most tobacco use starts during adolescence, actions to protect our nation’s young people from a lifetime of nicotine addiction is critical.

To schedule a youth smoking cessation appointment, call (309) 308-0200.


Last Updated: April 6, 2022

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About Author: Kathleen Copelen

Kathleen L Copelen, RDMS, RT(R), is coordinator of Cancer Services Administration at OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria. She has a passion for getting the facts out about not only the dangers of smoking and tobacco use, but how vaping is not a safe alternative to smoking.

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Categories: Kids & Family, Lung & Respiratory Health