For the first decade after electronic cigarettes were introduced to the international market in 2006, they were largely unregulated—even adolescents under 18 could legally purchase e-cigarettes throughout much of the United States. As with many new drugs, this form of smoking was (and is) billed as a safe alternative to a discredited counterpart: while traditional smoking produced an unpleasant odor and filled the lungs with toxic chemicals, e-cigarettes delivered their nicotine via aerosol and put out clean vapor—hence the common term “vaping” for using them. No need for dirty tobacco: perfectly safe.
Well, not exactly. E-cigarettes do contain chemicals related to formaldehyde and glycol—unpleasant visitors to invite into human lungs. And most e-cigarettes still include the key smoking ingredient nicotine, a toxic and addictive chemical that is especially dangerous for teenagers and other under-twenty-five-year-olds whose cognitive functions are not yet fully mature. Adolescents who use nicotine in any form are at high risk for addiction as well as for developing psychiatric disorders and memory impairment. And hundreds of thousands of middle and high school students treat e-cigarettes almost like candy: there are even YouTube videos showing kids how to discretely vape at school.
Now, a new vaping trend called “juuling,” which involves the use of “discreet” inhalers hardly distinguishable at a glance from portable computer drives, is becoming popular among adolescents. This article looks at the risks posed by juuling and other forms of vaping, and shares hints on how to know if your child is at risk.
WHAT IS JUULING, AND WHAT ATTRACTS KIDS TO IT?
Strictly speaking, “JUUL” is a brand name that, like “Xerox,” is frequently used synonymously with the product’s functions. The “genuine” JUUL is sold only to vapers age 21 and up, and the official JUUL website clearly states, “Our product is intended for adult smokers who want to switch from combustible cigarettes…. It is illegal to sell or resell our product to minors,” but that hasn’t stopped underage users from getting their hands on it in droves.
Among the most common reasons kids give for trying juuling or other forms of vaping is “just flavoring”—in other words, it tastes good. Unlike the tobacco-heavy mixes used in traditional cigarettes, e-cigarette liquids are easy to make in an enormous variety of flavors—up to 7,700, according to the American Lung Institute. A small sampler of popular flavors:
- Crème brulee
- Bubble gum
- Froot Loops
There are other reasons so many kids opt for juuling, though—and “to feel good” is only a small part of it. (Many teenage juulers may not even be aware that the vapor they are inhaling contains nicotine.) Other factors include:
- Juuling and other forms of vaping allow users to strike a “cool” appearance without the messy aftereffects of tobacco.
- Juuling devices are often physically attractive, made in a variety of colors and shapes. Many are deliberately designed to look like actual flash drives or other common devices of similar size.
- As already mentioned, juuling is easy to do discreetly and hard for authority figures to spot—it produces little staining or odor, and the devices are hard to recognize unless examined closely. As with chewing gum or peeking at someone else’s test answers, many school-age kids have few reservations about juuling in class right under the teacher’s nose.
ELECTRONIC CIGARETTES: A POTENTIAL GATEWAY DRUG
Although many people use e-cigarettes as an aid for getting off “dirtier” forms of smoking, more than half of established smokers who take up vaping continue to use conventional tobacco products as well. Worse, those who choose e-smoking as their initial form of nicotine delivery are at high risk for eventually “graduating” to old-style cigarettes/cigars/pipes and to other addictive drugs as well:
- Some e-cigarette liquids contain alcohol that can get users “high” without the smoker’s even knowing it.
- E-cigarette (and regular-cigarette) users are significantly more likely to develop drinking problems.
- Research indicates that e-cigarette users are at greater risk than nonusers for developing addiction to illicit drugs, particularly cocaine.
- Incidents of smokers adding stronger, sometimes deadly, drugs to e-cigarette liquids have soared in recent years. Nearly one in five high-school-age e-cigarette users have experimented with adding marijuana to their vaporizers.
Of course, many e-cigarette users never go on to additional drug problems—but, especially for someone who starts at an age when the brain is still developing and all intoxicating drugs are still technically illegal, regular use can encourage general thinking along the lines of, “If this hasn’t hurt me, that won’t either,” or can generate an overall life habit of “always look for the quick fix.” At best, regular e-smoking to relax will likely encourage procrastination on taking healthier risks and developing overall initiative—and will make it feel normal to always follow the latest trends, rather than thinking for oneself.
HOW TO KNOW IF YOUR CHILD IS AT RISK
If you’re a parent, know the signs of possible juuling/vaping:
- A secretive attitude.
- Attempts to conceal small rectangular or tubelike gadgets. (If your child suddenly develops a habit of “chewing on pens,” insist on examining the “pen” personally.)
- “Fruity” smells in the absence of an obvious source.
- Bloodshot eyes.
- Increase in the drinking of water or other liquids (indicating “dry mouth”).
- Frequent nosebleeds.
- Increased use of cologne, breath mints or mouthwash (possible attempts to cover smell from flavored vapors or “vaped” marijuana).
- Increased sensitivity to caffeine.
- Signs of developing nicotine dependence: frequent snacking, changes in sleep patterns, irritability, coughing.
If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s time to have a serious talk with your child. Don’t open with “you’re smoking” accusations, and don’t rummage through your child’s things seeking further evidence: state forthrightly what concerns you and why, and listen to the answer. Quitting juuling (or stronger drugs) isn’t easy, so be prepared to work as a team to solve the problem, preferably with the help of a doctor and a licensed counselor.
And to minimize the risk of a juuling problem developing in the first place:
- Don’t vape (or smoke) yourself! If you have a spouse or partner who’s unwilling to give up the habit, at least insist that vaporizers and liquids be kept where the kids can’t easily “borrow” them.
- Talk honestly with your kids about the health dangers of nicotine, including addiction—and make sure they know most e-cigarette liquids do contain nicotine.
- Emphasize respecting the law—including minimum-age laws for buying vaping products.
- Ask your kids to educate you on vaping and other drug trends in their peer groups.
- Remember that understanding, attentive parents are every family’s best defense against teenage problems of all kinds.
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