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Vaping: How a new generation is getting hooked on nicotine

It's growing in popularity

Vapes, electronic cigarettes, e-cigarettes or vapor cigarettes: whatever name they go by, they are the most commonly used tobacco products External Site among U.S. middle school and high school students.

According to the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey, e-cigarette use rose by 78 percent among high schoolers External Site and nearly 50 percent among middle schoolers in 2018. That means 3.5 million children were vaping in early 2018, up 1 million from 2017.

What are e-cigarettes?

E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices made to look like traditional cigarettes. Rather than burning tobacco, they have cartridges filled with nicotine and other chemicals. The liquid chemicals turn into a vapor or steam (instead of smoke) that a person inhales.

According to the survey, the rise in e-cigarette use is likely due to the popularity of certain types of e-cigarettes, such as JUUL®. Some of these products are appealing because they resemble slim USB flash drives, so they can be used discreetly. They also come in fruit and candy flavors, which are appealing to younger users.

Teenagers who use e-cigarettes expose themselves to cancer-causing toxins, particularly if they choose those fruit-flavored products, which have more chemicals. Researchers have found that teens who used e-cigarettes had up to three times the amount of the toxins in their urine External Site than teens who never vape.

The popularity of e-cigarettes is causing major concerns

According to the FDA, the increased popularity of e-cigarettes among youth raises a number of concerns:

  • Risk of addiction to nicotine early on in life;
  • Potential harm from nicotine exposure to the developing adolescent brain
  • Exposure to chemicals associated with negative health effects.

In addition, research shows that, compared with non-users, youth who use e-cigarettes are more likely to transition to conventional cigarettes. 

The unknowns of e-cigarettes

There are many unknowns about vaping, including what chemicals make up the vapor and how they affect long-term physical health. According to the American Cancer Society, e-cigarettes are less harmful External Site than traditional smoking. But, because e-cigarettes have only been available in the U.S. since 2006, there is little known about their long-term health effects.

In fact, in August of 2019, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) began investigating cases of a severe lung illness External Site believed to be linked to e-cigarette use and vaping. 

E-cigarettes contain nicotine, the highly addictive element found naturally in tobacco products. More people in the United States are addicted to nicotine than to any other drug. Research suggests that nicotine may be as addictive as heroin, cocaine, or alcohol.

Among the health hazards posed by nicotine, it causes increased risks of cardiovascular, respiratory and gastrointestinal disorders. It also causes decreased immune response, impacts reproductive health and can lead to cancer.

Some e-cigarette users get even more nicotine than they would from a tobacco product. That’s because you can buy extra-strength cartridges that have a higher concentration of nicotine. You can also increase an e-cigarette’s voltage to get a greater hit of the vapor.

Why do middle and high school students vape?

Among youth who had used an e-cigarette, the most commonly selected reasons for use were:

  • 39%: Use by “friend or family member”
  • 31%: Availability of “flavors such as mint, candy, fruit, or chocolate”
  • 17%: The belief that “they are less harmful than other forms of tobacco such as cigarettes”

Source: CDC and FDA analyzed data from National Youth Tobacco Survey 2016

The latest

The FDA is taking steps External Site to address the sales and marketing of e-cigarettes to kids. Part of this includes preventing access to flavored tobacco.