E-Cigarettes and Children: Is “Vaping” Safer than Smoking?

Here’s a statistic that will surprise you—in the United States, the use of e-cigarettes has increased in adolescents in grades 6-12 over the past several years, doubling from 3.3% in 2011 to 6.8% in 2012. Those that used both e-cigs and conventional cigarettes doubled as well from 0.8% to 1.6%. Approximately 1.8 million US students reported that they tried e-cigarettes in 2012 according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey. E-cigarettes may not have caught your attention, but they certainly have among children.

800px-510N_e-cigarette_and_e-liquidsIn an article that appeared on Medscape.com entitled e-Cigs: A Big Threat for the Littlest Kids, the topic of the newest wave of smokeless nicotine products hits home for all parents. Robert A. Bassett, DO, an emergency medicine physician and medical toxicologist at the Philadelphia Poison Control Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia presents information on one of the newest threats to the health of today’s youth: e-cigarettes. One of the main concerns about these products is the potential for acute nicotine poisoning.

What is an e-Cigarette?

An e-cigarette is a device that uses a heat source which is applied to liquid nicotine that allows the user to inhale the resulting aerosol (often referred to as a vapor), supposedly providing a sensation similar to that of smoking an actual cigarette. “Smoking” an e-cigarette is also known as “vaping.” These products are currently unregulated.

With anti-tobacco campaigns, public health awareness, and legislation focused on smoking in the recent past, tobacco companies sought alternatives to smoking cigarettes, and e-cigarettes are one solution they have brought to market. E-cigarettes were originally promoted as a healthy alternative to smoking, with a reduction in chemicals and carcinogens and a possible bridge to smoking cessation. But preliminary data indicates that e-cigarettes can have a detrimental effect on the lungs and very little effect on smoking cessation.

Safer? Better? Healthier?

Since e-cigarettes are still new, there is a lack of long-term data on whether they are really better or healthier for anyone. Nicotine is still used in e-cigarettes, so most users end up trading one addiction for another and never completely stop smoking. According to a New England Journal of Medicine report, e-cigarettes may end up functioning as a “gateway drug” that could potentially prime the brain to be more receptive to harder drugs. While e-cigarettes may reduce the danger to the lungs and the heart, not much has been studied about effects on the brain. During a time of critical brain development, the physiological effects on the brain may pose the same risk of addiction to other drugs.

With the exposure and use of e-cigarettes increasing, so has the risk of toxicity, as e-cigarettes have higher concentrations of nicotine than those of traditional tobacco products. A single tablespoon of this high concentration nicotine could be lethal to a 65-pound child. Refill bottles for e-cigarettes, even at a 1.8% nicotine solution, approach this size. For higher concentrations of nicotine (10% solutions are available), the lethal dose is even smaller.

An Unregulated Market

Currently, there is no regulation of these nicotine products by the US Food and Drug Administration as they are classified as “recreational” rather than therapeutic products. No regulation also means no incentive to come up with consumer protections for adults and children alike. There is also no quality control on these products, and perhaps most alarmingly, the manufacturers place very child-pleasing labels on the products, making them attractive to children.

Taking Action

Parents need to be familiar with the statistics and be aware of the activities their children may be participating in. If parents are using these products themselves, they need to realize that the potential for a child in that same household to get their hands on an e-cigarette or refill bottle is extremely high, and that this could be one of the most deadly substances in their house. Let’s talk to our doctors, our legislators, and our policymakers to encourage them to consider strategies to lower the risks of our children being exposed to and having easy access to these deadly products.

Photo ©2011 by Lauri Rantala under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.