The popularity of e-cigarettes has increased in recent years, especially among teens. A study published on JAMA Network found that 27.5% of high school students surveyed used e-cigarettes in 2019.
Many consumers, including teenagers, believe that vaping is a safer way to consume nicotine than smoking, however, nicotine in any form can have severe health consequences. While there may be fewer chemicals in e-cigarettes, they are not necessarily a safer alternative to cigarettes. In addition, nicotine in e-cigarettes can still be addictive.
What is Nicotine?
Nicotine is a stimulant and a sedative that is found in products like e-cigarettes, cigarettes, and chewing or snorting tobacco. It is a chemical that is naturally found in the tobacco plant. Because of nicotine’s effects on the brain, it is highly addictive.
What Nicotine Does to the Brain
Nicotine in any form, no matter how it is delivered, can be an addictive substance. In e-cigarettes, nicotine is inhaled and absorbed from the lungs into the bloodstream. It reaches the brain in about 10 seconds.
Nicotine activates the reward center of the brain. It binds to acetylcholine receptors in the brain, releasing a neurotransmitter called dopamine. This activation of the reward system can lead to addictive behaviors, as people repeatedly seek those pleasurable feelings associated with dopamine.
It’s also common that tolerance to nicotine develops, so people need more of a drug to feel its effects. In fact, long-term nicotine use has been shown to increase the number of acetylcholine receptors, leading to intense cravings.
Nicotine is considered to be a gateway drug, meaning repeated use can prime someone to try cigarettes and even harder substances. There are many other risk factors that can lead to addiction, however, we cannot disregard the impact of gateway drugs. This is especially true when we look at teen drug use.
The Adolescent Brain and Addiction
It takes the brain about 25 years to fully develop, meaning that it is still developing during the adolescent years. During this time, the limbic system, which is responsible for emotion, develops quickly. The pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for logic and reasoning, is much slower to develop in teens. Therefore, we tend to see risk-taking in these years, sometimes in the form of drug use. For many adolescents, vaping may be their first experience with drugs.
Research also suggests that the earlier the onset of drug use, the more likely a person will develop a substance abuse problem. This correlates with brain maturation and susceptibility to addiction in the early years.
What to do if You’re Concerned About Vaping Use
Any addictive substance can have lasting consequences. Nicotine can be one of the hardest substances to quit, but the good news is that many people are able to quit and recover.
Early intervention, especially for teens and young adults, is the best way to treat nicotine addiction, formally known as tobacco use disorder. There are medications that can help with smoking cessation, although a child under the age of 18 would require a prescription.
Many people also benefit from counseling. Counseling can help uncover psychological reasons for tobacco use and teach coping mechanisms to prevent use. Teens may be able to participate in counseling at school or through outpatient treatment.
As a parent or guardian here are some other things you can do to prevent e-cigarette use:
- Have open and honest conversations with your child frequently.
- Be familiar with e-cigarette products, especially ones marketed to teens. They are often hard to detect.
- Brainstorm creative ways to avoid peer pressure with your child.
- Seek advice from school guidance counselors or family physicians.
While nicotine in an e-cigarette may be less harmful, it is still highly addictive. A person can become addicted through e-cigarette use without trying another substance. Teens are especially at risk for developing an addiction, but early intervention and treatment can improve outcomes.
Learn more about Pyramid Healthcare’s programming and resources for teens.
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