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Vaping / Nicotine

Vaping: The Most Popular Gateway Activity

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Views on the dangers of vaping greatly vary because there is still much that is unknown about the long-term health impacts. However, what most people don’t consider is the potential of vaping as a gateway activity.

The concept of a gateway drug, as said by the National Library of Medicine, “refers to the pattern of substance use during adolescence whereby legal substances, such as nicotine and alcohol, precede the progressive use of illicit substances. . .” Both the act of vaping and the addictiveness of it can lead teens to try other substances. Teens who vape are opening a door to future - potentially worse - substance misuse by setting negative habits early on. As the commonness of vaping and e-cigarettes rises among young people, so does their likelihood to try other harmful, illicit substances down the road.

Vaping Among Youth

If you ask parents or teachers what the biggest substance use problem is among youth, chances are you’d hear something about vaping. This is because vaping has quickly become the most popular method of chemical ingestion for teenagers around the world.

Though e-cigarettes have been around since 2004, they became increasingly popular in 2018. An estimated 3.6 million middle and high school students reported vaping in 2018, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS). That number went down to just over 2 million in 2021, which some believe could be due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the difficulties it caused in teens’ ability to get substances. In 2022, the NYTS found that number on the rise again so far, with more than 2.5 million high school and middle school students who currently use e-cigarettes.

It is believed one of the reasons behind this is that large vaping companies are targeting youth by selling flavored vapes. Of the 2.5 million youth who use e-cigarettes, almost 85% use flavored e-cigarettes.

Ways to Vape

Vaping has many variations, including the type of device used and the substance that is used. Different vaping devices include:

  • Disposable e-cigarettes
  • E-cigarettes that come pre-filled
  • E-cigarettes with refillable cartridges
  • Tanks or mods
  • Vaporizers

The substances that can be vaped include e-liquid, marijuana/THC, CBD, and more.

Risks of Vaping

Unknown substances in vapes

It is widely known that just like regular cigarettes, almost all vapes contain nicotine, an addictive drug. However, one of the dangers of vaping is that it puts you at risk of ingesting other unknown substances and chemicals. 

For instance, a condition called E-cigarette/Vaping Product Use Associated Lung Injury, or EVALI, broke out in 2019 that has been linked to the presence of Vitamin E acetate in vapes. This chemical was added to some vape products that contained THC. EVALI peaked from 2019-2020. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 2800 hospitalizations and 68 deaths associated with the condition. According to the CDC, 15% of those patients were under 18 years old. These young people lost their lives because they ingested a chemical that they most likely were not even aware was present. 

Some other chemicals that can be found in vapes, according to the American Lung Association, include:

  • Propylene glycol – a common food additive
  • Carcinogens – cancer-causing chemicals such as formaldehyde
  • Acrolein – a chemical commonly used in herbicides
  • Certain heavy metals like lead, tin, and nickel
  • And more

Physical and Mental Effects

The human brain is not fully developed until the age of 25. As The Truth Initiative says, “Nicotine is harmful to developing brains: younger users are more likely to become addicted, have more difficulty quitting and may be at higher risk for addiction to other substances in the future.” Studies have been conducted that examine mood changes associated with e-cigarette use, and vaping has been linked to an increase in mental problems such as depression and anxiety.

In addition to the mental effects, vaping also causes physical damage. Because of how new it is, it is not certain exactly how this damage is done; however, there are many research-based theories. As Johns Hopkins lung cancer surgeon Stephen Broderick explains, when a person vapes, their lungs are coated in what they inhale. One theory of the way this could be causing damage is that the oils that are ingested from the liquid base get into the lungs and irritate them.

While there are still many unknowns about vaping, it clearly poses a threat to the well-being of youth.

Safer than Smoking or a Path to Addiction?

Probably the most common argument in support of vaping is that it is safer than smoking. Vaping can help smokers quit smoking and lessen the dangers that come with smoking. However, young people who are vaping are not doing it to quit smoking. Research shows that young people who vape are actually more likely to start smoking than young people who don’t vape. Tobacco-less nicotine may serve as a healthier alternative to smoking, but not vaping will always be safer than vaping.

Arguably more dangerous than vaping’s immediate physical and mental health threats is the fact that it can lead young people to other forms of substance misuse and set them up for many problems in the future.

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