Boom in smoking alternatives catches many parents off guard: Your Vaping Questions, Answered | by Sarah Protzman Howlett

Teen tobacco, vaping

Posted on Tue, May 14, 2019

The good news: Smoking is losing ground. Only 7 percent of Colorado teens now smoke, down from a high of 25 percent in the 2000s, according to the 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey tobacco data. But vaping? It’s huge — and high schoolers’ (mis)perception is that it’s safer than smoking. Vaping is the act of inhaling and exhaling aerosol (also called vapor) from an e-cigarette or similar device. And like any nicotine product, it can become addictive and affect brain development, which is still forming until about age 25.

In this article, Colorado Health & Wellness breaks down parents’ most pressing questions on this growing concern.

Only half of high school kids surveyed say they think vaping is risky, and more than one in four Colorado teens surveyed say they use an electronic vapor product. This can include e-cigarettes, vape pens or advanced personal vaporizers, known as mods.

So what’s in vaping products?

vaping products

E-cigarette products are filled with a liquid called e-liquid or e-juice, which often — but not always — contains nicotine. A small heating element inside the device turns the liquid to vapor, which is then inhaled through the mouthpiece. 

The vapor usually consists of a propylene-glycol or vegetable glycerin–based liquid that contains nicotine, flavoring, and other chemicals and metals. But it almost never contains tobacco leaves and it’s not water vapor — two common misperceptions.

What do vaping devices look like, and how do they work?

A vaping device consists mainly of a mouthpiece, cartridge for the e-liquid/e-juice and battery. When the device is in use, a battery activates the heating component, which converts the e-liquid into aerosol. The aerosol is inhaled into the lungs and then exhaled. The battery can be plugged in and recharged like a phone, taking about an hour to go from empty to full. E-cigarettes (also called “cig-a-likes”) resemble traditional cigarettes, while vape pens look more like a large fountain pen. 

“They’re all sleek and easy to put in your pocket,” says Alison Reidmohr, tobacco communication specialist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “Parents say they would find these items in kids’ backpacks and never know.” 

Pod mods and box mods, which are slightly larger with a bulky battery, are yet another type of vaping device.

What vaping products are most popular?

There are literally thousands of independently made products on the market, Reidmohr says, but it’s also common to call vaping “JUULing,” after the company that makes three out of every four vaping products sold today. On the market since 2015, JUUL is popular in large part due to its use of nicotine salts, which don’t dry out the throat as much and often provide a higher nicotine spike.

Which Colorado teens vape?

Reidmohr says several factors predict not just whether a kid will vape, but also if they’ll use a variety of other substances, such as: 

  • Youth who have clear family rules and a curfew are 39 and 38 percent less likely to vape, respectively. 
  • Parents who know where their kids are and who they are with are 49 percent less likely to vape.
  • Youth who did not skip school in the past month are 52 percent less likely. 

“We’re here to say there are more healthy coping mechanisms to get through the difficult parts of life,” Reidmohr says. 

Can you always tell when someone is vaping?

No. While presence of humectant — a moisturizing substance — makes a visible cloud, JUUL products do not make as visible a cloud, and kids say they can “stealth vape” that way. “Sometimes, they’ll act like they’re coughing, take a draw, hold the vapor in their lungs for a long time,” Reidmohr explains, “and then by the time they exhale there’s very little vapor or cloud.” The smell can be similar to food, lip balm or gum, so it can confuse teachers, parents and other adults. 

When should I talk to my kids about it? 

The 2012 Surgeon General’s report showed kids start smoking and chewing tobacco at age 12, on average. 

The CDC recommends seizing on a natural moment, such as seeing an ad for vaping or walking by a store where the products are sold, to start a conversation: Rather than the old, “We need to talk,” ask what they think about it. 

“Parents should also model good behavior by abstaining from smoking themselves and being observant.” In addition to studying what the products look like, be on the lookout for difficult-to-explain behavior: Stepping away for frequent breaks; several kids gathered in one bathroom stall; spending lots of money on unexplained items; and paying attention to otherwise unexplained fruity or minty smells. These could all be signs your teen is vaping.

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