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Vaping causes harmful brain changes in teens

Last week, we looked at the rapid rise of e-cigarettes (e-cigs) as a popular alternative nicotine delivery device. Many people using e-cigs are aware of the many dangerous chemicals present in cigarette smoke, including tar and various other carcinogens. There is truth to the statement that e-cigs lack the many dangerous chemicals present in smoke, and in fact England Public Health estimates in their report that e-cigs are 95% safer than regular cigarettes, although this is based mostly on expert opinion.

That said, nicotine itself, without any other chemicals, can have significant health effects. Nicotine harms the fetus in pregnancy, causing lasting consequences to brain and lung development. It also causes long-term effects on memory and attention when used by adolescents and teenagers, with lasting cognitive and behavioral impacts. Other chemicals in e-cigs, such as the liquid creating the base and certain flavor additives, may have negative effects. Flavor chemicals used in e-cigs are food grade, but that does not mean they are safe to vaporize and inhale into the lungs. Poisonings also have occurred from getting cartridge contents in the mouth, skin, and eyes, including a tragic death in 2014 when a child ate the nicotine liquid. E-cigs should be kept well away from children.

Despite that advice, e-cig use is now more common among teenagers than traditional cigarette use. In fact, they increased in popularity so quickly that the CDC reported e-cig use doubled from 2011 to 2012 among US middle and high school students. Aggressive marketing, including kid-friendly flavors like bubble gum and gummy bear, as well as easy online purchase options, are likely culprits. Vaping is increasing in popularity with teenagers, the very population most likely to be harmed by nicotine use. It bears repeating: Nicotine causes long-term effects on working memory and attention when used by adolescents and teenagers, with lasting cognitive and behavioral changes.

E-cigs still have many unknowns. Although many adult smokers are interested in e-cigs for smoking cessation, there is not currently high-quality research demonstrating that they are effective for this purpose. We don’t know for certain how much nicotine or what other chemicals are in them, which brands are safest, or how helpful they may be as a smoking-cessation aid. We do know they are not safe for pregnant women and teenagers. If you do chose to vape, be sure to cut back on cigarette use and get information on quitting smoking from your doctor. And seriously, keep them away from your kids and teens.

Dr. Jacob MINOR is board-certified by the American Board of Otolaryngology. He practices at Seton Medical Center Harker Heights.

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