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January 11, 2021

Youth vaping threatens to wipe out gains in cigarette use, health experts warn

E-cigarettes are a gateway to traditional smoking, new research shows

Originally marketed as a way to help adult smokers quit, e-cigarettes appear to be just as addictive, especially for younger users. Children who vape are three times more likely to smoke regular cigarettes as adults, a new study has found.

Most electronic cigarettes contain nicotine, the addictive stimulant found in cigarettes and other tobacco products. This addictive element can become a gateway to adult smoking, health experts warn.

In a study of about 16,000 people ages 12 to 24, nearly two-thirds had tried at least one tobacco product and almost 33% had tried five or more tobacco products. E-cigarettes and cigarettes were the two most popular. The findings were published in the journal Pediatrics.

Each additional tobacco product a person tried increased the likelihood that the user would become an adult cigarette smoker, the analysis showed. The findings support a 2018 National Academy of Medicine report that identified a similar link.

The popularity of e-cigarettes could reverse the decline in cigarette smoking among U.S. young adults, the researchers pointed out.

E-cigarette use among high school seniors grew from 39% to 47% between 2016 and 2000. Youth cigarette use has been steadily falling since peaking at 36.5% in 1997. 

"There is an urgent need to reconsider the policies on e-cigarettes and at least hold them to the same standards as the cigarette companies such as restricting their right to advertise to our teens," lead researcher John Pierce, a family medicine professor at the University of California, San Diego told U.S. News & World Report.

The dangers of cigarette smoking are well-documented, but the health effects of vaping aren't as well understood. Any amount of nicotine – even the amount in e-cigarettes – is unhealthy. And the consequences for youth are particularly damaging.

Brain development continues until age 25. Any nicotine use before then can change brain cell activity, particularly in the area of the brain tasked with learning and memory. 

Each time the brain creates a new memory or learns a new skill, brain synapses between cells are created, the CDC says. Nicotine changes how those connections are formed.

Other studies have shown that it can increase anxiety, irritability and impulsivity. Early nicotine use also has been linked to future addiction to other drugs. A New England Journal of Medicine study found that the nicotine in e-cigarettes may increase the risk of addiction to cocaine and other drugs.

Nicotine isn't the only ingredient in e-cigarettes that is harmful either. Vitamin E acetate, used in some vaping products, has been linked to lung injury. Poisoning is also a risk when the e-cigarette liquid is swallowed or absorbed into the skin or eyes. Scientists are still learning the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

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