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It's Time to Wake Up About Teens Using E-Cigarettes

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E-cigarettes are a fact of life for teens, and parents need to catch up.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), or more specifically the 2014 National Youth Tobacco Survey, e-cigarette use among teens has tripled in the past year. Since 2011, it's gone up 800 percent.

In case you've been busy with, I don't know, daily life, and haven't gotten up to speed on every possible substance anyone might use, e-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that look like cigarettes and create a vapor instead of smoke. While some don't have nicotine, most of them do. And the vapor can have yummy flavors, like bubble gum and chocolate.

What's particularly remarkable about this survey is that it showed that more teens use e-cigarettes (also called vaping) than regular cigarettes. So, all you parents who talk to your teens about cigarettes, it's time to talk about e-cigarettes too. Or instead.

I should say that I've yet to meet a teen in my practice who is using them (I always meet alone with kids by the time they get to high school). It's possible they are lying about it, but since they are pretty open about alcohol and marijuana use, I don't think so. I have encountered way more marijuana use than tobacco use--which makes sense, as according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey about 23 percent of high school students use marijuana whereas the survey showed that about 9 percent smoke cigarettes and 13 percent use e-cigarettes.

From my conversations with teens about marijuana (and about life in general), here's what I've learned:
-Teens don't always have all the facts. Most of them think that marijuana isn't addictive (it is) and that it's not dangerous (it is).
-Teens do what their friends do (duh).
-Teens think that they are immortal and that nothing can really hurt them (and that taking risks is fun). Just think about when you were a teen.
-Teens want to make good decisions, and are quite capable of it
-Very few parents really talk to teens about substance use--at least not in any detail.

It's the detail stuff that makes the difference. The devil is in the details, right? It's all fine and good and commendable to tell kids not to use e-cigarettes--but it's even better if you ask what they know about them, ask if their friends use them and give them accurate information about them.

It's entirely possible that some teens are using e-cigarettes to help them quit smoking; maybe that's why the tobacco numbers are going down (except for hookah use, that's on the rise). And since e-cigarettes don't have the tar and other toxins present in cigarette smoke, they are a reasonable way to approach quitting, even though we don't have enough data yet to know if that approach truly works. But if a teen starts using e-cigarettes instead of smoking, well, that's a different story.

Here's what parents need to know--and teach--about e-cigarettes:
1. Vaping can be addictive. Nicotine is addictive. Most teens I talk to don't like the idea of becoming addicted. Help your teen understand this. And help them understand that since nicotine is in tobacco, a nicotine addiction could lead to tobacco use.
2. We don't know the long-term effects of breathing in the vapor, but we don't think they are good. The vapor is full of chemicals, including cancer-causing ones like formaldehyde. We need more studies to understand what that vapor might do, but I think that it's safe to say that it's not going to make anybody healthier--and may be quite dangerous.

While there are some regulations around e-cigarette use, there are nowhere near enough. We need federal regulation of them, and universal bans on their sale to minors. In the meantime, it's up to parents and everyone else who lives with or works with teens.

That "if I don't talk about it they won't do it" approach has never worked. Start talking.

Photo credit: The Associated Press

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