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Back to School Could Mean Back to Vaping

Students near a school bus wearing medical masks.

By Jennifer Pearson, PhD, MPH

While I’m not a mother, I spend a lot of time teaching young adults as a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. I’m also a researcher focused on tobacco and e-cigarette policy; and part of my role is to provide facts to policymakers so they can make the best possible decisions to enact policies that support people in living long, healthy lives.

The issue of vaping is particularly relevant to parents, as it can cause addiction and respiratory problems for young people (middle school through early 20s). But far too many adults don’t fully understand the consequences.

The dangers of vaping for non-smokers, youth, and young adults

While switching from smoking cigarettes to vaping is harm-reducing for adult smokers, that is absolutely not true for teens and young adults. Yes, e-cigarettes are less harmful than the top cause of preventable death in the U.S., but they’re not harmless.

Here are some of the reasons why:

  • Nicotine is addictive. Many electronic vapor products heat liquids that contain nicotine, the same drug that makes cigarettes addictive. When e-cigarettes first became popular in the U.S. about seven or eight years ago, most delivered very little nicotine to the user. But now a lot of e-cigarettes use a different formulation — a nicotine salt solution — that makes it much easier for the nicotine to be absorbed into the body. People who use these nicotine salt solution e-cigarettes have blood nicotine concentrations that look a lot like they’re smoking cigarettes.
  • That means that the risk of addiction to these new e-cigarettes is a lot higher than it used to be. This is why a lot of adolescents and young adults who start vaping regularly find they don’t feel good unless they continue to vape. That’s the problem with addiction — at first using a substance makes you feel good, but after a while your body gets used to it and you need the drug to just to feel normal.
  • While we don’t have hard data linking vaping with COVID, it stands to reason that sharing e-cigarettes between multiple people, combined with blowing vape toward one another, is not an ideal way to stay safe from this infectious disease that attacks the lungs.
  • With some kids, we are finding a link between vaping and alcohol, marijuana, and other substance use. I’m not saying that e-cigarette use “causes” other substance use, but the behaviors do tend to travel together. We can all probably think back to our teen years and think of reasons why that might be. Parents should consider vaping a toe dipped in the water of other risky behavior, as it is the easiest one for teens to acquire and to hide from their parents.
  • We’re finding that e-cig use is more common among young people who report experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other types of mental distress. They might be using e-cigarettes to take the edge off their symptoms, and they need healthy tools to help them cope. If you find out your teens have been vaping, it’s important to talk to them about what’s on their mind and look for signs of depression and other types of mental distress.

Spending time with friends could mean extra opportunities for vaping

Many of our kids are preparing for a return to in-person school, rather than distance or hybrid learning. So why is going back to school relevant to this conversation? Data shows that 48.7% of Nevada high school students borrow their e-cigarettes from friends, which means that returning to their friends could mean a return to vaping.


While I’m certainly not suggesting keeping young people away from their friends, it’s vitally important that parents understand the dangers of vaping — and that parents are open to talking to their children about this important issue.

Are you wondering if this is something that affects your child? Data suggests there’s a good chance. Data from the 2019 Nevada Youth Risk Behavior Survey show that 22.5% of high school students had vaped in the last 30 days, compared to 15.5%  in 2017. In certain counties within the northern and rural regions of Nevada, over 36% of high school students had vaped in the past month. Picture2

The Nevada Tobacco Prevention Coalition’s LetsTalkVaping.com website shares some signs to look for:

  • Change in mood: Because nicotine addiction can cause mood swings, teens may be unusually irritable, short-tempered or exhibiting impulsive or risk-taking behavior.
  • Problems at school: Nicotine can affect brain development, memory and learning. If your child is struggling more than usual at school, vaping is one possible reason.

Of course as we all know, adolescence tends to be a time when irritability and mood swings are common; it’s also a time when school can take a back seat to socialization, which can translate to a drop in grades. The NTPC understands, offering, “These symptoms might sound like teens just being teens, but if you see a lot of these come on at once, it might be time to take a closer look. So if you see these signs, or find devices you don’t recognize, it’s definitely time for a talk.”

About that talk

The good news is that young people do care what their parents think, though that might not always seem obvious. Our research shows that if kids think their parents disapprove of e-cigarette use, they are much less likely to use them, and this is especially true for middle schoolers. Parents need to make sure their children understand that vaping is not acceptable, that it is not just water vapor, and that vaping is addictive.

It can be difficult to have conversations like this with teens and young adults. I like what LetsTalkVaping.com has to share:

  • Try to avoid announcing “the talk” or lecturing your teen. Instead, look for ways you can work your concerns into everyday conversations. Car rides or walks are great places to try this.
  • Take a deep breath, go for a walk, or stretch if you’re upset. A calm chat will get you further.
  • Ask them questions about things they say to you. Repeat what you’re hearing back to them.
  • Don’t cut the conversation short. Give your teen space to say everything they need to.
  • Express concern, not judgment, where needed. Instead of saying you’re “disappointed” in them try saying you are “worried” about them.
  • Address peer pressure. Brainstorm real-life situations with your teen where they might encounter vaping, and talk about ways they could handle them.
  • Good, factual information is more effective than scare tactics. Give your teen good reasons to avoid vaping.
  • Keep your words and body language relaxed and neutral.
  • If someone in the family vapes, like a parent or an older sibling, try talking with them about limiting their use around your teen.
  • Be patient. You were a teen once. Try not to get frustrated with your teen, or yourself. It might take a few tries to get through to them, and that’s okay.

Helping them quit

As mentioned above, nicotine is highly addictive, and helping your teen quit may not be easy. But it is important. Let’s Talk Vaping recommends the My Life, My Quit program. This free and confidential service is for people under 18 who want to quit all forms of tobacco and e-cigarette use.

I know parenting isn’t easy, particularly during a pandemic, and I am sorry to be giving you one more thing to worry about. However, taking action now can prevent a future health issues for your teen or young adult.

Screen Shot 2021-04-05 at 12.23.17 PMJennifer Pearson, PhD, MPH, is an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR).




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