When I talk to teens in my practice about cigarettes, what I hear from lots of them is that the smell is what keeps them from smoking. They don’t want to smell like cigarette smoke, and they don’t want that taste in their mouth, either.
But what if the smell, and the taste, were good? What if they tasted like bubble gum, or chocolate?
In a study published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers looked at data from the 2014 National Youth Tobacco Survey. They found that among teens that had never smoked cigarettes, 58% of those who had used flavored e-cigarettes planned to start.
That number was 20% for teens who had never used e-cigarettes. It was 47% among those who had used non-flavored cigarettes, which is a high number too. Clearly, teens that use e-cigarettes are more likely to start smoking.
But when the e-cigarettes were flavored, the teens were less likely to think of tobacco as dangerous.
E-cigarettes and tobacco are different, of course. E-cigarettes do not have many of the carcinogens that cigarettes do, and could be useful for smokers who are trying to quit. But for teens that have never smoked, it’s a different story. The “vapor” of e-cigarettes doesn’t have to contain nicotine, but it can (it does contain chemicals such as formaldehyde that could have long-term health consequences) — and nicotine is addictive. Using e-cigarettes is physically close enough to smoking cigarettes that moving from smoking one to smoking the other could easily happen.
The use of e-cigarettes among youth has grown tremendously over the past few years — and e-cigarettes are being marketed to them. We don’t know what the consequences of this will be. It could be that we will end up with more smokers — or that we’ll end up with fewer if teens decide to stick with e-cigarettes, especially if they choose to stick with the nicotine-free kind. But we can’t just sit back and wait to see what happens.
Recently the Food and Drug Administration extended its tobacco regulations to include e-cigarettes and other nicotine delivery systems, which among other things, requires that there be warning labels and that you have to be at least 18 years old to buy them. This is a good start, and will help us look more carefully at how e-cigarettes are being marketed, too.
We need to do more research to understand the short-term and long-term effects of e-cigarettes on our youth. We need more information in order to make the best policy and parenting decisions.
All of us who are raising or interacting with teens need to talk with them more about e-cigarettes. We need to understand how teens think about them, and why they might choose to use them; when it comes to teens, listening is really important. And along with listening, we need to help teens understand the risks involved. We can’t let them get distracted or seduced by marketing and flavoring; we need to help them make the best choices for their health.