Author: nvarughese

E-cigarettes: the pediatrician’s role in an epidemic

The Surgeon General issued an advisory to warn about the rising use of vaping in minors (middle and high school children). E-cigarettes were introduced to the US market in the mid-2000s, and the market has expanded rapidly. In 2011, only 5% of high schoolers had used or experimented with them at some point, but only 4 years later in 2015, that percentage had grown to 13% of middle school and 39% of high schoolers. Because the use of electronic delivery systems for nicotine is a rising danger, pediatricians should include a routine discussion with teenagers as part of patient visits.

The dangers of vaping have been suspected by the medical community since its introduction, and evidence is accumulating to validate those fears. Evidence does support the suspicion that nicotine predisposes the adolescent brain to more severe tobacco addictions. Biological studies (animal models and human population data) indicate that the teenage brain is more susceptible to addictions–earlier exposure leads to stronger addictions and increased likelihood of experimenting with other substances. Thus, the fear that nicotine delivery systems are a bridge (rather than just an alternative) to more serious tobacco addictions is validated by the data so far.

Conversely, it is also true that electronic nicotine systems can help current smokers wean the nicotine addiction. However, from a public standpoint, this could be far outweighed by the number of younger non-smokers who are led to develop a habit they might have otherwise avoided. The solvents and flavors in e-cigarettes are not benign either. While they are safer (by current estimates) than traditional tobacco smoke, they do cause inflammation of the airways. For example, two common additives (diacetyl and acetyl propionyl) have been shown to cause popcorn lung/bronchiolitis obliterans. Like other consumable additives, the FDA has long considered them safe for ingestion, but the aerosolized form can still cause damage to lung tissue.

The toxicity of nicotine itself forms the most obvious risk to young people. First of all, nicotine has been shown to irreversibly decrease attention and processing speed and to increase the fear response mechanism. In other words, teenage nicotine exposure will impair memory and attention span for life and increase the likelihood of anxiety and depression. This risk decreases when exposure is delayed until adulthood, so the teenage years represent a critical window.

Second, nicotine is very toxic in utero. It increases the risk of SIDS, hearing impairment, language delays, ADHD, and possibly obesity. It may begins disrupting the normal development of brain circuitry as early as 5 weeks gestation, and even secondhand exposure to vaping can result in significant serum nicotine levels. These facts should be strongly emphasized to adolescent girls who may wish to be mothers someday, as well as to anyone who lives in proximity to women of childbearing age.

Finally, nicotine has long been known to acutely increase heart rate and blood pressure. Its long-term cardiovascular consequences are still unknown. Other nicotine-replacement  systems (nicotine patches, etc) have not been shown to cause cardiovascular toxicity, but the prolonged, irregular doses from vaping have not yet been sufficiently studied.

This is a prominent issue among young people in our country independent of racial or economic demographics, and pediatricians should give it a proportionate level of attention. Parents should be informed of its dangers during well child visits and given data about the specific risks. Given its prevalence, this should be a routine topic of anticipatory guidance for middle-school children and older. Also, local governments and schools should be encouraged to aggressively regulate teenage access to these devices and limit marketing to that audience. Evidence shows that regulation does prevent a large fraction of teenage vaping, and pediatricians should play an active role in voicing the importance of this legislation. As health care providers, we have the opportunity now to intervene in our communities and forestall some of the long-term consequences of this new epidemic among young people in our country.   

Natasha Varughese, MD

E-Cigarette Use Among Youth and Young Adults: A Report of the Surgeon General. US Health and Human Services 2016.

Examining the relationship of vaping to smoking initiation among US youth and young adults: a reality check. Levy DT, et al. Tob Control 2018;0:1–7

The impact of local regulation on reasons for electronic cigarette use among Southern California young adults. Hong H, et al. Addictive Behaviors, 2018 (ahead of print).