Teens and the Epidemic Rise of E-cigarettes and Vaping


Image credit: iStockPhoto.com/Tatyana Azarova.

Help prevent a lifetime of addiction: Educate your students on the dangers of vaping.

By Michele Faehnle

A few years ago I was at a parish festival. A mob of tweens and teens congregated by the main gate, talking and laughing with each other, slowly taking over the area as night fell. As I weaved through the crowds to find my teenager, I noticed a group of boys laughing and holding a little silver device in their hands and then putting it to their mouths. In my naiveté, I thought it was a dog whistle, but soon realized what was really going on; the small silver apparatus was an e-cigarette. They were vaping.

Using electronic cigarettes is the latest smoking trend in which people use an electronic device to provide an aerosol vapor that is inhaled. These small handheld devices use a battery to heat up an element that contains nicotine, flavorings (such as bubble gum, chocolate, cotton candy, and gummy-bear candy) and other additives. I was shocked to see this, but even more of a concern to me was that I knew these students were only in middle school.

Electronic cigarettes (commonly known as e-cigarettes) were first introduced in the US in 2007. According to the tobacco industry, e-cigarettes were created to help adults quit smoking cigarettes, but their use has caught on among middle-school and high-school-aged students and has grown dramatically in the last five years. In a 2018 press statement, FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., stated, “It’s reached nothing short of an epidemic proportion of growth.”

I spoke with Greg Stein, presenter from the Ohio Department of Health Tobacco Prevention and Cessation Program and Catholic-school parent, to get answers to some questions about vaping and its dangers for students.

Why is youth vaping a concern?

As we watched the youth cigarette use dramatically decrease in the early 2000’s, beginning in 2012-2013 we see a dramatic spike in the numbers of e-cigarette use among middle and high school-aged kids. Public health has spent a generation trying to get people to stop smoking, and now we seeing a new generation of “smokers” and people addicted to tobacco.

Students often think the use of e-cigarettes is safe, but most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which is addictive and harmful. A recent study indicates that 99% of e-cigarettes sold in the US contained nicotine. In addition, “nicotine free” e-cigarettes contain toxic chemicals such as diacetyl and other volatile organic compounds that can have serious health consequences, including cancer, lung disease, and heart disease.


Image credit: iStockPhoto.com/MakcouD


Why do students vape? 

Students vape for a variety of reasons; to experiment and see what it’s like, to relax and have a good time with their friends, to relieve tension and stress, or to relieve boredom. Students also choose to vape due to peer pressure and for social acceptance. Mass media portrays vaping as a normal and a cool or hip activity. If you google “celebrities vaping,” over 4.5 million images are shown!

What are the dangers of vaping? 

Some of the immediate effects of vaping can be seen with eye irritation, blurry vision, airway irritation, cough, increase airway resistance, increased heart rate, chest pain, increased blood pressure, stomach pain, nausea and vomiting.

The use of nicotine also greatly impacts the brain. The prefrontal cortex is still developing during adolescence and this area is largely affected by nicotine. This area of the brain is responsible for executive functions such as attention performance, decision-making, self- control and problem solving, and is one of the last areas of the brain to mature. Each time a new memory is created or a new skill is learned, stronger connections, or synapses, are built between brain cells. Young people’s brains build synapses faster than adult brains. Nicotine changes the way these synapses are formed by creating addictive pathways in the brain that can make youth more susceptible to addiction throughout their life.

Evidence has shown that youth may be more sensitive to nicotine and that teens can feel dependent on nicotine sooner than adults. There is also a strong relationship between youth smoking and depression, anxiety and stress.

What other things do teachers need to know about vaping?


Image credit: Shutterstock/Chris Allan.

Some e-cigarettes don’t look like tobacco products, so kids can use them unnoticed in schools, including in bathrooms, hallways, and classrooms. They also come in a multitude of flavors; there is no burning product so you don’t need a lighter or matches, and [they] are easy to conceal. The most popular device is the JUUL, which looks like a USB drive. Using them is called “JUULing.” These devices have a liquid pod that contains as much nicotine as a pack of 20 regular cigarettes. It delivers a hit of nicotine because of its “nicotine salts.” These salts vaporize at much lower temperature so they do not leave a big cloud of scent, making a JUUL easy to hide.

Students can also help disguise using a JUUL in school by using vaping hoodies and backpacks, which are designed to allow students to mask what they are doing and blow the smoke into their clothing unnoticed. The flavorings such as grape, cinnamon, pineapple, and piña colada don’t smell like smoke, so [they] make it easier for students to do at school without being noticed.

How can teachers and school administration help?

  • Teach students about the dangers of e-cigarettes
  • Be sure your school has a 100% Tobacco Free Policy and that it includes e-cigarette use
  • Develop and implement strong enforcement policies
  • Develop educational opportunities for students and staff to learn about the dangers of use of e-cigarettes
  • Provide help to quit for those who want and need it
  • Set a positive example and be tobacco-free

The epidemic rise of e-cigarette use is a public health crisis. Educating students on the harmfulness of these products can help prevent a lifetime of addiction.

Michele Faehnle, RN, BSN, is the school nurse at St. Andrew School, Columbus, Ohio, and co-author of four books. Pray Fully is her latest book.

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