Risks & Side Effects of Vaping for Teens
Last Updated Dec 2, 2021
The biggest threat vaping poses to teens is arguably its ability to impact brain development, potentially causing permanent mental health issues that can last even if the person eventually stops vaping.
Vaping can also cause respiratory problems, with the long-term health consequences of vaping still not fully understood.
Vaping should not be considered safe for underage users. It is still harmful, although less harmful, to adults.
The Risks of Vaping
Medical experts virtually all agree that vaping is unsafe for teens (and adults).
Some vaping products don’t even provide what is advertised, such as vape liquids marketed as containing 0% nicotine being found to sometimes contain nicotine. Additionally, problems have occurred in the quality control of a number of vaping products, sometimes even leading to deaths.
Nicotine vaping products are known to be addictive. Both nicotine and marijuana can affect the development of a person’s brain, which keeps developing until about the age of 25. This is also the case for many other types of drugs.
Despite some claims to the contrary, vaping hasn’t been definitively linked to popcorn lung. Some people believed e-cigarettes that contained diacetyl could cause the condition, which is named for workers in popcorn plants who developed it after breathing in that same chemical, which was used to flavor popcorn.
However, there are no confirmed cases of vaping products causing popcorn lung. Some places, such as the UK, have also banned diacetyl, meaning not all vape products contain the substance regardless.
The Truth Initiative, an anti-vaping and anti-smoking organization, has collected a number of valuable vaping statistics, including the following:
- Young people who use e-cigarettes are seven times more likely to become smokers within one year compared to people who haven’t vaped.
- About 99 percent of e-cigarettes sold in venues assessed by the CDC contained nicotine.
- The frequency of teen e-cigarette use is rising with the rate of use, meaning as more teens vape, it seems they are also using the products more often.
- As many as two-thirds of JUUL users ages 15 to 21 were found to not be aware that JUUL products always contained nicotine.
- About 18 percent of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders reported vaping nicotine in the prior 30 days in a 2020 study.
What Are Vape Devices & How Do They Work?
Vaping devices, called e-cigarettes, come in many different forms. They all work, broadly speaking, in a similar way.
Liquid, generally containing nicotine and often some flavoring, is heated by the device. This produces an aerosol, which a user then breathes in.
Devices can be reusable or disposable, and they come in different sizes, shapes, and price points. Some users have customized vaping systems (often called mods). Many use small rechargeable systems, and some use disposable e-cigarettes that superficially look much like a traditional cigarette.
Recently, disposable e-cigarettes have grown in popularity among teens.
JUUL vs. Other Types of Devices
JUUL is the dominant vaping brand, with a massive 51.6 percent of the reusable market share.
It has a small, discrete design that many criticize as making it especially easy for teens and children to hide regular use of the product. JUUL has also been criticized for colorful designs and flavors that, intentionally or not, seem to appeal specifically to underage users.
These products are widely accessible and easy to use. JUUL devices look very similar to flash drives, and they can charge through a USB.
One of the most immediate devices to compare JUUL pens to is the Puff Bar. This is the most popular disposable e-cigarette brand. It was heavily criticized (alongside many other brands) for marketing campaigns and product designs seemingly directly marketing to kids.
JUUL isn’t especially “worse” than most other types of vaping devices. However, it is a very popular brand, and there is troubling evidence they may have actively marketed to children, including allegedly buying ad space on Cartoon Network and other youth sites. The company has a financial interest in the success of their product and the promotion of vaping devices — efforts that have undeniably encouraged underage use regardless of intention.
Vaping Nicotine vs. Vaping Marijuana
Most e-cigarette products contain nicotine. However, some instead or additionally contain marijuana-derived products.
Vaping marijuana is similar to vaping nicotine in terms of the overall process.
Why Is Nicotine Unsafe?
Nicotine is well-established as causing dependence, which can make it difficult to stop using the drug.
Users can go through withdrawal if they stop taking nicotine after using it for a while. They may feel restless, anxious, and depressed. They may suffer from insomnia and general disease.
These negative withdrawal symptoms can cause a person to seek out more nicotine, whether that means continuing to vape or switching to other nicotine products, such as traditional cigarettes.
Nicotine is known to harm the parts of the brain that affect attention, learning, mood, and impulse control. It can change the way synapses form in young brains. It may also increase a person’s risk for addiction in the future.
Why Is Marijuana Unsafe?
Cannabis vaping exposes users to fewer toxins than smoking it, but it still has its dangers, especially to developing brains. It has been associated with acute lung injury, and there is concern it may expose young users to high-potency forms of cannabis they may otherwise not use.
There is evidence that vaping marijuana may even cause more lung damage than vaping or smoking nicotine products. Vaping marijuana users were about twice as likely to report whistling and wheezing symptoms than those who didn’t vape the drug.
More studies are needed on the health effects of all vaping products, but marijuana products especially. In particular, more studies are needed that test people who only use marijuana vaping products rather than those who use both marijuana and nicotine products. Many other studies have been unable to focus on this group.
How Vaping Affects Mental Health
Vaping nicotine, the most common type of vaping, is associated with a number of mental health conditions, including these:
- Mood disorders
- Permanent reduction in impulse control
Nicotine also changes the way synapses form in the brain. It is believed to affect attention and learning abilities.
Is Vaping Safer Than Cigarettes?
“Is vaping safer than cigarettes?” is a somewhat challenging question in that the short answer is “yes,” at least arguably.
A person inhales fewer toxins, and there are fewer health risks with vaping than with smoking. However, an important caveat is that vaping is safer, not safe.
Vaping is undeniably bad for a person’s health compared to not vaping. It exposes the body to toxic substances that are especially harmful to developing brains. The fact it is better than smoking should not cause a person to think it is okay for children and teens to vape. Vaping can do permanent harm.
Tips for Preventing Your Child From Vaping
The CDC offers a few tips to prevent a child from taking up vaping or to help them stop if they’ve already started:
- Adopt a tobacco-free lifestyle yourself to set a good example.
- Talk to your child directly about the harm vaping can do, especially to their developing body and brain.
- Encourage your child to read from scientifically backed government resources on smoking and vaping.
There are gaps in our understanding of the best ways to promote smoking and vaping cessation, but health care providers can play a key role in helping children and teens if they have trouble stopping use on their own.
Many teenagers feel addicted to products and have trouble stopping use even when they want to stop. This can be made more difficult if they feel unable to talk openly about their addiction with their parents or guardians.
If you make it clear you’re willing to help the teen in your life and get them access to the appropriate treatment, you can greatly improve the chances that they will stop vaping. It’s important to approach them from a loving and supportive position versus one of judgment or condemnation.
5 Vaping Facts You Need to Know. John Hopkins Medicine.
Cannabis Vaping: Understanding the Health Risks of a Rapidly Emerging Trend. (June 2020). Pediatrics & Child Health.
Does Vaping Cause Popcorn Lung? (December 2021). Cancer Research UK.
E-cigarettes: Facts, Stats and Regulations. (June 2021). Truth Initiative.
Monitoring the Future 2020 Survey Results. (December 2020). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Juul Bought Ads Appearing on Cartoon Network and Other Youth Sites, Suit Claims. (February 2020). The New York Times.
Know the Risks. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
E-cigarette Use Among Middle and High School Students — United States, 2020. (September 2020). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Vaping and Marijuana: What You Need to Know. (May 2020). Partnership to End Addiction.
Quick Facts on the Risks of E-cigarettes for Kids, Teens, and Young Adults. (April 2022). U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
Strategies To Promote Smoking Cessation Among Adolescents. (May 2016). Pediatrics & Child Health.
Vaping Marijuana Associated With More Symptoms of Lung Damage Than Vaping or Smoking Nicotine. (March 2021). University of Michigan.
Short- and Long-Term Consequences of Nicotine Exposure during Adolescence for Prefrontal Cortex Neuronal Network Function. (December 2012). Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine.
The Dangers of Vaping. (March–April 2020). Missouri Medicine.
An Updated Overview of e-Cigarette Impact on Human Health. (May 2021). Respiratory Research.