Are Vape Pens Dangerous?

Tips on Teens #032

So your teens says this to you…

But Mom, the vape pen is safer than smoking cigarettes.  There’s no nicotine!  I’m not smoking weed.  It’s just water vapor.  There have been no studies showing that vaping is bad for you.  Can I please have a vape pen?  They are so cool!

How would you respond to your kid if she presented you with this quandary?

Vape Pens?!?  What are vape pens?  And why is my kid trying to convince me that it’s not like smoking?

Vape pens are a lightning-fast growing phenomenon in our culture.  They are gaining tremendous popularity with young people for a multitude of reasons.  In short, a vaporizer pen or vape pen (a type of e-cigarette) is a nifty little device ranging in size from a standard pen to a large cigar that one can use to inhale heated propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin (the main ingredients in the E-liquid) and blow out the vapor.  

Here’s a brief run down of a standard vaporizer.  It has three components:

  1. A liquid cartridge called E-liquid used to produce the vapor.  It is often flavored and can contain nicotine (lots of nicotine).  
  2. A heating element known as the atomizer.
  3. A rechargeable battery to power the atomizer.

So, when a person vapes, she turns the atomizer on that heats up the e-liquid turning it into an aerosol that she slowly inhales into her lungs and then blows out billowing clouds of strawberry-banana flavored smoke.  

Teenagers vape pen use

 

Propylene Glycol?!? Inhaling fruit flavored vegetable glycerin vapors?!?  Is this dangerous?

That’s the big question.  When your kid looks you dead in the eye and swears that there are no conclusive studies showing that vape pens are dangerous… he’s right.  The information learned from these studies is limited at best.  So, what makes a vape pen dangerous?  It is the unknowns:  

  1. The fact that there have not been sufficient scientific studies done on them.  
  2. Vape pens are relatively new to the market and kids are crazy to get their hands on regardless of the health risks.
  3. We don’t know what the long term health risks are.  This unknown makes every teenager with a vape pen a lab rat! 

Here is some information that we do have.  According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention:

Potentially harmful constituents… have been documented in some e-cigarette cartridges, including irritants, genotoxins, and animal carcinogens.

There is also evidence that adjusting the heating element to higher ranges converts the propelyne glycol and vegetable glycerin to formaldehyde and acetaldehyde.  Both of those chemicals are suspected to be carcinogenic specifically when inhaled into the lungs.  

Surprisingly enough, there is no requirement to publicize the ingredients of e-liquids, (aka juice).  So, who knows what’s in that little bottle of chocolate flavored liquid?  According to some studies, diethylene glycol, a chemical toxic to humans often found in anti-freeze can be commonly found in juice cartridges.  Yet, this is just one of several toxic chemicals that has been found within e-liquids.  Some smoke shops will make their own house blends and tout all sorts of purity claims, however no one is testing those house blends.  So again… who really knows what is in that pina colada flavored e-liquid cartridge?

What about the e-cigarettes that are used to quit smoking?  They’re regulated by the FDA.  

There are some e-cigarettes that are identified by the FDA for therapeutic use to quit smoking and are therefore regulated accordingly.  It is true that vape pens are a form of e-cigarettes but they are NOT identified for therapeutic use.  Therefore, they are largely unregulated by the FDA or any government agency.  In other words, no one is making sure that these devices are safe to use.  No one is monitoring the potential hazardous effects of their use… especially on kids.  

Wait a minute!  Are these things even legal for minors to have?

According to California Health and Safety Code Section 119405, it is illegal to sell any electronic smoking devices or paraphernalia to minors.  However this particular law has a loophole that you may find puzzling… the law does NOT prohibit the possession of these products by minors.  In other words, your adorable 13-year-old daughter who still wants purple braces on her teeth and just came home from her friend’s summer pool party to snuggle with her favorite teddy bear that she’s had since she was a toddler can LEGALLY own and use a vape pen, but it could not legally be sold to her.  Apparently it is perfectly fine for your daughter to receive a vape pen as a Bat Mitsvah gift from her uncle who’s a drummer in a Grateful Dead cover band, but not okay for her to buy it with her Bat Mitsvah gift money… go figure!

Well, I’d rather have my son vaping than smoking cigarettes!  Isn’t it the lesser of two evils?

Perhaps, but the jury is still out on that one.  The bigger problem is that you would never even know that he’s NOT vaping nicotine.  Many of the e-liquids carry strong amounts of nicotine.  While it is technically illegal to sell those cartridges to minors, it’s fairly common for these shops to turn a blind eye for the sale.  To add to the mystery, vaping doesn’t produce a strong smell the way smoking tobacco or marijuana does. Gone are the days of needing to spray cinnamon scented air freshener or chewing five sticks of Big Red Gum to cover up your secret.

All right, at the very least she won’t be smoking marijuana!

Not so fast.  Vape pens are commonly used for burning concentrated THC oil called wax or dabs that have significantly higher amounts of THC (the psychoactive chemical that gets you stoned in marijuana) than any joint she may hit.  Vaping wax has virtually no smell, so you’d be unlikely to recognize what was in her pen.  Smoking dabs can be much more dangerous than smoking your standard marijuana due to the highly concentrated THC content that can have severe health ramifications.  Smoking or vaping wax can lead to psychotic breaks and hallucinations.  It is much more addictive than usual marijuana use.  

But if she’s not vaping nicotine or THC, isn’t vaping safer than cigarettes or weed?

Nicotine and THC may indeed be more toxic than the typical juice cartridge, but that doesn’t mean that vaping is healthy.  For example, jumping into the panda bear habitat at the zoo so you can give the big critter a warm, cuddly hug may be safer than jumping into the polar bear habitat and doing the same thing.  While it is true that the panda is much smaller (and perhaps cuter) than a polar bear, an herbivore and would not try to eat you, he will still most likely use his incredibly sharp and powerful claws and teeth to hug you right back… but at least you would not be eaten like the polar bear clearly would have done.  It should be noted that there are no definitive scientific studies that prove that jumping into the panda enclosure at the zoo is dangerous… so go ahead, at least they’re not polar bears!

What is so fascinating to kids about these vape pens?  

It is a compelling mix of rebellion, technology and social acceptance all rolled into one.  In one sense, kids are vaping for the same reasons teens have started smoking cigarettes since before any of us were born… the illusion of being cool, a distraction from insecurities and boredom, or perhaps a superficial vehicle to socialize with others.  However, vape pens are created with designer patterns, lights and technical aspects for both aesthetic and functional customization.  It’s almost like having an iPod Touch that you can smoke.  There’s always a way to modify your vape pen to create bigger clouds or upgrade to a better vape pen.  Additionally, you can customize the look of your pen to mirror your sense of style.  So, even if your teen isn’t smoking it, he can tinker with it or use it as a conversation piece to engage with peers without those awkward silences.  

How do I guarantee that my teen won’t smoke this trash?

It’s not easy.  A resourceful teenager will get her hands on one without you knowing it.  Declaring boisterous edicts that you can’t enforce or lecturing at your teen will be futile.  First, take the time to listen to your teen and try to understand the allure of vaping without judgment.  Acknowledge her point of view, and try to relate to it as best you can.  If your kid feels heard and respected, then she might be more open to your opinions about the dangers of vaping.  Once you have a healthy dialogue, you can research together the risks of using any form of e-cigarette.  Perhaps showing your teen your respect and patience around any conversation you have about it will keep her ears open long enough to hear some points you bring up.  Remember, it should be a dialogue (between two people) not a monologue (another “Mom” lecture).  Within the dialogue, the emphasis should be on your kid talking himself through the reasoning.  Often times, the more you allow him to do the talking, the more he will be able to hear the weaknesses in his own debate.  Allowing him to put words to his thoughts, forces him to clarify the flood of incoherent or irrational beliefs that teenagers always want to justify.  On the other hand, if you lecture on every issue, it will force him into a corner where all he wants to do is win the argument and he will use every trick in the book to minimize your stance instead of considering your words.  You can’t expect him to make sound choices for himself if he can’t hear his own thoughts spoken without the fear of being judged or dismissed by you.  

But what if I catch my kid vaping?  And then I catch him again!  And again!  What then?

Enforce the boundaries that you feel keep your child safe.  Do this calmly, respectfully and consistently.  If your rule is to confiscate that vape pen, make sure that you are coming from a place of compassion.  There is no need to add anger onto the already combustible powder keg that this situation is.  He may get upset, offended, outraged, but you don’t have to follow suit.  One of you has to be the calm, strong and wise adult… he’s not qualified, so that means you!  If you enforce this rule angrily or with shame and disgust, he will only focus on your hurtful emotions and will never consider your logical position or that you are coming from a place of love and understanding.  This will most likely lead to your son getting ahold of another e-cigarette device and being more cautious so you don’t catch him.  

You may indeed catch your teen multiple times trying to get around your rules on vaping.  Do your best to stay calm and enforce your rules with dignity.  Eventually he will recognize that you are not just trying to ruin his life and stop him from ever having any fun.  At some point he will realize that you have always treated him respectfully even when he wasn’t following your example.  That Ah-Ha! moment may help him rethink his approach to vaping and consider healthier alternatives to deal with those awkward insecurities that all teens face every day of their lives.

But that sounds almost impossible!  How am I supposed to stay calm?

If any of this were easy, you wouldn’t need to read articles like this.  Parenting can be painfully difficult and confusing.  Like every other parent in the world, you’ll make mistakes.  That’s okay.  Learn from those parenting mistakes and keep trying.  It helps to have other peers, parent educators or even a therapist to help you in processing all of this.  The more support you get, the more grounded you will feel when parenting conundrums like this fall upon you.  The more confident you are, the more compassionate and effective you will be at helping your kids make smarter and healthier choices.  Stick that in your pipe and smoke it!

Remember that adolescence is a temporary mental disorder... and it will pass within a few years.


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