New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the trend in smoking traditional cigarettes among teens is down. That's great news on many levels. But as traditional cigarette smoking has declined, the use of electronic cigarettes has tripled over the past few years.
Wondering whether to worry? Or even what the heck an e-cigarette actually is? I've been combing the latest research to help answer those questions.
E-cigarettes are basically a battery-powered device that converts liquid nicotine (often flavored) into a vapor that can be inhaled. It looks like smoking, and probably feels a bit like smoking, but there's no tobacco and nothing is burning. You can buy kits with the battery-powered devices, tanks full of liquid nicotine in different flavors, and chargers, among other things.
The industry that makes e-cigarettes markets them as a healthy alternative to traditional cigarette smoking, even as a way to help you quit smoking. But here's the thing: there's not a lot of evidence to back up that claim.
Nicotine and the developing brain
More importantly, there's evidence to suggest that nicotine is harmful for developing brains. Teens' brains are indeed still developing, particularly the connections between higher cognitive functions and emotional centers. That makes them vulnerable to nicotine exposure, according to the most recent U.S. Surgeon General's report on the health effects of smoking (from the chapter on nicotine):
"Animal studies provide evidence that nicotine exposure during adolescence has effects on the brain that differ from exposure during other periods of development. Studies in rodents show that nicotine induces changes in gene expression in the brain to a greater degree with adolescent exposure than during other periods of development (Schochet et al. 2005; Polesskaya et al. 2007)."
Genes affected in the brains of adolescent rats, researchers found, have to do with learning and memory.
They also found that nicotine changed the cell number and size in young rats' brains:
"Nicotine exposure during adolescence also appears to cause long-term structural and functional changes in the brain (Dwyer et al. 2009)."
There's also research showing that the effects of nicotine on adolescents are different for males and females.
True, this research was done in rats, and that's not the same as studying something in living humans. But it sounds like there's definitely something to be worried about:
"Based on existing knowledge of adolescent brain development, results of animal studies, and limited data from studies of adolescent and young adult smokers, it is likely that nicotine exposure during adolescence adversely affects cognitive function and development. Therefore, the potential long-term cognitive effects of exposure to nicotine in this age group are of great concern."
Rhode Island data
Rhode Island surveys adolescents about their tobacco use. And they have just added questions about e-cigarette use to the survey this year. So we don't have Rhode Island-specific data on the trends yet, but we will. And if the aggressive marketing campaigns of e-cigarette companies continue, I suspect we'll see "vaping" continue to rise in popularity.