Sarah Smith has three children under the age of 16, and one day she was cleaning out her oldest child’s backpack when she saw something that startled her.
She found flavored e-cigarettes stowed away and immediately knew her son was vaping. The first thought to come to her mind was that her son might be addicted to the nicotine he’s ingesting on a regular basis.
“It started pre-pandemic, and he was super secretive,” said Smith, who is using a fictitious last name to protect her son’s identity. “It was something we accidentally discovered in his backpack. And we knew that some of his friends were vaping.”
Her son is not alone, as research shows that nearly half of Nevada teens have tried vaping. About 23% report that they have vaped in the last 30 days.
Just as adults do, teens vape or smoke for a variety of reasons, according to experts, from peer pressure to stress relief.
“There was anxiety and stress related to COVID-19 isolation, school, family issues and just being a teenager,” Smith said. “Despite us talking to him about it, and how dangerous and addicting it is, I think he uses it for a coping mechanism to numb himself.”
Washoe County Health District Health Educator Lisa Sheretz promotes the My Life My Quit program, which is a free and confidential service from National Jewish Health that offers one-on-one coaching by text or by phone to help teens quit vaping and smoking. She says that when teens use vaping for stress relief, they’re not developing the healthy coping skills they’ll need throughout their lives.
“There are many stressful moments throughout the day where they could be learning to process things, but instead they’re hitting the vape and getting that nicotine rush,” Sheretz said. “So, a lot of those developmental moments that could be so useful are getting lost in the nicotine.”
“That was a big wake-up call for him”
Vaping is not a safe alternative to smoking, even though many believe that to be true. And unfortunately, it’s especially unsafe for teenagers.
“Their lungs and brains are still developing,” Sheretz said. “When nicotine hits the brain, and you get that head rush that makes you feel light-headed or dizzy, that’s the body’s attempt to cope. When you keep hitting on the nicotine when you’re young, the brain grows nicotine receptors that become hard-wired.”
This can lead to addiction, Sheretz said — not just to vaping, but potentially to cigarettes and other substances as well. The exposure of a young brain to nicotine can also cause mood disorders and lower impulse control.
“This is harmful for your body, too,” said Sheretz, who is working on a campaign called “Attracting Addiction” to bring awareness to the vaping flavors like cotton candy geared toward youth. “With vaping, you’re getting super-heated nicotine concentrate in much higher levels than you do with cigarettes. E-cigarettes are dangerous devices that are much too accessible to youth. The chemicals from the candy flavorings, as they say with menthol in cigarettes, ‘makes the poison go down smoother.’”
Sarah Smith’s son finally started paying attention to the dangers of vaping when he developed some health issues related to his allergies and respiratory system. He soon will get a tonsillectomy.
“When he had to go into the ER, he asked the doctor if his vaping had anything to do with his health problems,” Smith said. “The doctor said ‘maybe not directly,’ but that continuing to suck in toxic chemicals to an already infected and irritated respiratory system was not a good idea. That was a big wake-up call for him.”
The hidden danger
Vape devices can look like everyday items, including pens, USB sticks or phone cases. There are hats and backpacks with special stash pockets. Healthline.com shares information on how some vape devices — like special hoodies — will even conceal exhaled vapor in hidden tubes and compartments, some designed to look like the hood’s drawstrings. Vaping is also relatively odorless, though it does leave a fruity or sweet aroma for a few minutes after use.
“One thing we’ve learned in focus groups is that because vaping is so easy to hide, they’re doing it walking to class or to their car, in the bathroom, behind the teacher’s back or whenever they can,” Sheretz said. “We had one boy in a focus group admit to taking at least 200 hits a day, because it was so easy.”
Is your child vaping?
In addition to the paraphernalia, there are other signs a child may be vaping.
“Nicotine addiction can cause mood swings, so pay attention if your teen is especially short-tempered and dry mouthed,” Sheretz said. “You also might notice that they’re being secretive or that their social circles have changed.”
If a child is struggling more than normal at school, vaping could be the cause, as nicotine does affect brain development, memory and learning.
Have ‘the talk’
As many teens start vaping as early as middle school, it’s important to reinforce the message before they’re presented with the opportunity.
“Start these conversations young, as these kids are telling us that by middle school it’s too late,” Sheretz said. “Make sure they understand that they are in charge of their own bodies and they have the power to make good or bad choices.”
Sheretz notes the teens in her focus groups say they have never heard from anyone that vaping is dangerous — from teachers or parents. The good news is that they also hear that kids do care what their parents think.
“Parents talking to their kids about vaping does work,” she said.
The American Lung Association shares this advice for starting the conversation:
- Take an open and calm approach: An open conversation will provide a relaxed environment to discuss ideas without making them feel like they are being blamed or in trouble.
- Be ready to hear that your child may have vaped: Thank them for being honest. This is key for continuing an open conversation and relationship of trust.
- Help your child manage stress: Talk to your kid about any larger concerns or pressures they may be feeling. Make sure they have healthy outlets for relief.
- Help your child manage peer pressure: Consider rehearsing or role playing to give your kid the social tools to refuse tobacco products.
- Follow up: This isn’t a one-time conversation. Make sure to leave lines of communication open. Fact sharing is a great way to reintroduce the conversation topic.
Helping them quit
Ideally, your conversations can do the trick, Sheretz said, and your teens are not interested in this dangerous drug. She said if you find out that they’re already vaping, there are tools out there you can use to help them quit. And research shows that 72% of Nevada’s teen vapers have reported wanting to quit. About 44% of them have tried to quit 10 or more times.
Among the free services from My Life My Quit, Sheretz said it includes one-on-one coaching and is free. Other benefits include:
- Text messages that give teens a boost while they quit.
- Ideas on how to cope with stress in healthy ways.
- Information on why our bodies craves nicotine.
- Tips and the support they need to quit for good.
“Most students say they never intended to be a smoker and that this doesn’t fit with how they envisioned themselves,” Sheretz said. “It’s so important for parents to talk to their kids and give them the tools they need to become who they want to be.”
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