Gabriella Bhaskar / The New York Times

February 5, 2020

Smoke and Mirrors: The Truth Behind the Health Consequences of Teen Vaping

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Vaping is no stranger to the Cornell community, with students scattered across campus casually “hitting” their JUULs in between classes. But are Cornellians aware of its potential health consequences?

Prof. Valerie F. Reyna, human ecology, and Prof. Jeff Niederdeppe, communication, weighed in on the physiological effects of vaping — especially on adolescents — and the marketing tactics e-cigarette companies have used to appeal to them.

According to Niederdeppe, while it is too soon to observe the long-term effects of vaping, the short-term consequences can potentially be severe — particularly for those who have used black-market products containing THC, which the previously CDC linked to a spate of respiratory illnesses in recent months.

While vapes do not contain as many harmful chemicals as traditional cigarettes, the large quantities of nicotine within e-cigarettes can also be a major cause of health problems, like cardiovascular disease and cancer, according to Reyna.

But increasing regulation on e-cigarette products can alleviate this health crisis, she said.

“Teens respond more to external controls on risky behaviors than adults do,” Reyna said. “And so anything that reduces access to addictive substances may improve health.”

Nicotine’s highly addictive properties stem from its effects on the brain’s reward circuits. With every puff of nicotine, dopamine levels increase in the brain, giving the mind a feeling of pleasure, or a “head rush.”

With e-cigarettes, teen brains become primed to make connections between flavors and the influx of dopamine, often motivating users to use nicotine regularly. According to Reyna, teens can become addicted to nicotine with old mild exposure, due to their brains’ more intense response to rewards such as flavors and food.

Recently, e-cigarette companies have been taking advantage of teens’ susceptibility to nicotine addiction, targeting them with fruity flavors and a sleek design, Niederdeppe said. This targeting prompted a new effort from the FDA to crack down on the underage sales of e-cigarettes.

According to Niederdeppe, the FDA’s recent attention to the issue suggests that federal lawmakers believe the targeted marketing towards teenagers has significantly contributed to the increase in e-cigarette use among teens.

The previous lack of federal oversight or regulation allowed advertisers to promote the perceived relative safety of e-cigarettes in comparison to combustible cigarettes.

This contributed to a great deal of misinformation about the risks and safety of these products among consumers, Niederdeppe said. As a result, vaping has become extremely popular among younger, college-age students.

However, it’s essential that teens not give into these targeted marketing schemes, especially with the recent outbreak of lung injury associated with vaping.

“Teenagers make risky choices, which is a natural part of growing up,” Reyna said. ”But it makes them vulnerable to lifelong addictions.”