Once peddled as the ‘healthy alternative’ to smoking tobacco, opinions about vaping have changed as further research is published on the habit. My Minds News takes a closer look at why vaping can be so harmful to adolescent minds in particular.
Where it all began
The electronic cigarette, or e-cigarette, was invented by Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik in 2003. Inspired by the death of his father (a lifelong smoker) from lung cancer, Lik wanted to create a healthier alternative to smoking that would also make it easier to quit tobacco altogether.
Lik invented the so-called e-cigarette, which includes a small battery that heats up and vaporizes liquid that contains nicotine and other substances. The user then inhales or “vapes” that vapor into the lungs. Twenty years later, more than 70 million people vape worldwide, including 2.5 million middle school and high school kids in the United States.
True to Lik’s intentions, many people have quit smoking with help from e-cigarettes, almost always in combination with other quit strategies, nicotine patches or gum, and or counseling (more proven methods).
What began as a so-called healthier alternative to cigarettes has since morphed into a highly addictive and profitable product that is getting young people, in particular, hooked at a very vulnerable age. Up to the age of about 25, brains are still developing and are highly prone to the changes in brain structure and chemistry that occur as nicotine addiction takes hold.
Once addiction takes hold of a young person’s brain, it often puts them at higher risk for other addictions as they move into adulthood – hence vaping is often known as a gateway drug.
The brain can be tricked by nicotine
The brain’s reward center is vital to our survival. It controls our incentive to eat, sleep, fall in love, avoid danger, feel pleasure, and everything else we must do to thrive as a species.
When a person starts using nicotine, it can start to take the reward center hostage by literally changing its structure and chemistry. This “hostage” effect is more pronounced and damaging in the developing brains of young people.
After a period of steady use, the brain gets tricked into thinking it needs nicotine as much as it needs food, sleep, shelter, and so on. At this point, you start craving nicotine as a way to feel pleasure. Your brain thinks you need it to survive.
When this happens with adolescents, they start choosing the false reward of nicotine over true rewards like getting good grades, doing well at sports, bonding with their friends and family members, listening to stimulating music, and all the normal activities that give young people pleasure.
Adolescents may still do these activities and gain pleasure from them, but there’s a certain crowding-out effect that occurs. In effect, nicotine takes over space in the reward center, and other things once craved fall by the wayside.
What does research tell us about vaping?
A November 2022 survey study of more than 150,000 adolescents showed how e-cigarettes can be powerfully addictive. As the researchers reported, more adolescent e-cigarette users start on their first nicotine product within five minutes of waking up than users of regular cigarettes and all other tobacco products combined.
The study’s introduction is hard-hitting, stating,
“Electronic cigarettes are highly engineered drug delivery devices that create and sustain addiction. Early e-cigarettes did not deliver nicotine as efficiently as cigarettes because they delivered freebase nicotine that was hard to inhale.
This situation changed with the 2015 introduction of Juul products, which added benzoic acid to the nicotine e-liquid to form protonated nicotine. Protonated nicotine increases addictive potential by making it easier to inhale quantities of nicotine that are difficult for naive users to achieve with cigarettes or earlier e-cigarettes. By 2018, Juul held 75 percent of the market.”
Targeting the young
What’s maddening is that e-cigarette manufacturers likely knew what they were doing when they began targeting their products to adolescents. They were getting them hooked on nicotine so they would continue to buy their products.
This is despite knowing the long-term havoc this might cause to young people’s brains and behavior. These companies understood that they had a captive, susceptible audience that would respond positively to some of the same marketing tactics that had worked for cigarette manufacturers decades before.
Tactics such as making it cool, manufacturing it to be less harsh and more flavorful (flavored e-cigarettes remain the most popular), showing celebrities using it, saying it’s healthy (relative to cigarettes), packaging it in a slick device that looks like an Apple product, and make it easy to conceal and even smokeless so parents and teachers can’t see you doing it!
How can we manage the situation regarding the effects of vaping?
Although society has made great strides in reducing cigarette smoking among everyone as a whole, including adolescents, data shows that the youth smoking rate’s high-water mark of 36 percent in 1997 had fallen to 8.8 percent in 2017. This, however, marked the point at which the e-cigarette craze took off for young people.
Given the experience being reported by addiction treatment centers worldwide, there’s little doubt that the explosion in e-cigarette-based nicotine addiction is already leading to spillover addiction to other drugs.
To combat the rise of vaping in the young and to reduce the take-up of vaping as a habit, psychologists recommend two key steps –
- We need to get a handle on the nicotine addiction scourge, and part of that means holding e-cigarette manufacturers accountable for their exploitative behavior toward the young. It is society’s responsibility to make vaping companies act more responsibly and demand compensatory action.
- We need to do everything we can to help our young people make smart, informed decisions about e-cigarettes. They are not a healthy alternative to cigarettes. They contain a highly addictive substance (nicotine) that we do know about, and probably a range of other toxic substances we don’t yet know about.
Because e-cigarettes have been around for such a short time, little is known about their long-term health effects. But if we look at society’s past experience with tobacco smoking as a precedent, it is likely that today’s problems with vaping are only likely to get worse.
What are your thoughts on vaping? What effects do you believe it can have on the young? Let us know in the comments.