A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

E-cigarettes: Nicotine repackaged

different e-cigarette and vape machines / e-cigarettes

E-cigs can come in very different appearances including regular cigarettes, USB flash drives, pens and many other everyday items.

Editor’s note: This post was updated March 2019.

Nicotine in electronic cigarettes, better known as e-cigarettes, makes them no better than regular cigarettes. Many teens do not even know if the fluid they vaped contained nicotine. Sadly more than 85 percent of available e-cigarettes contain some addictive nicotine.

“Nicotine causes addiction,” said Dr. Adedayo Onitilo, a Marshfield Clinic oncologist and chairman of the Wisconsin Cancer Council. “If you’re using an e-cigarette, you’re not going to cut that addiction.”

E-cigarettes escape regulation

E-cigs have escaped widespread regulation, although that has been changing in recent years. A number of cities and states have banned indoor “vaping,” as the use of e-cigs has grown. The Food and Drug Administration has also moved to put these new devices under its review process, especially limiting teen access.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), poison center calls related to e-cigs increased from one a month in 2010 to 215 per month in 2014. More than half the calls involved children younger than 5 years old. The liquid containing nicotine used in e-cigs is highly toxic if it’s ingested, inhaled or exposed to eyes or skin.

With an e-cig you take a puff and it triggers a sensor to switch on a small, battery-powered heater. The heater vaporizes liquid nicotine in a small cartridge that activates a red light on the “lit” end and produces a light vapor. E-cigarette batteries have caused fires and explosions. Some teens are now using other fluids in their vaping devices like marijuana and alcohol with serious intoxications.

Electronic cigarette diagram

E-cigs popular with teens

“They come in multiple flavors with names like cotton candy, chocolate and fruit flavors,” said Dr. James Meyer, who specializes in adolescent medicine at the Health System. “The whole design of an e-cigarette looks ‘cool,’ like they’re trying to appeal to younger people.”

E-cigs can come in very different appearances including:

  • Regular cigarettes, cigars or pipes.
  • USB flash drives.
  • Pens.
  • Other everyday items.

Meyer said he’s seen an increasing number of teenagers using e-cigarettes during the past 10 years. E-cigarettes are now the most common tobacco product among youth.

“Most teens don’t want to have negative things happen to them, such as addiction or cancer down the road,” he said. “The ingredients in e-cigs are completely uncontrolled, but some studies of the vaping fumes show toxic compounds like lead, arsenic, diacetyl and chemicals known to cause birth defects and cancers.”

When you can talk to teens one-on-one, most will admit they don’t want to mess with ingredients that can potentially cause high blood pressure, spasms, heart rhythm problems, miscarriages, premature births and even strokes. Nicotine can cause unpleasant physical side effects in new users, including nausea, sweating, increased heart rate and jitters.

Not an alternative to smoking

Some people try e-cigs as an alternative to smoking, but e-cigs still have nicotine, the same addictive chemical in cigarettes. Vaping does not produce the tar component that is seen with regular cigarettes. Using nicotine in adolescence may also increase risk for future addiction to other drugs.

“We finally have made real progress,” Onitilo said. “A lot of my cancer patients tell me cigarette smoking used to be the cool thing to do. Now if people start thinking that smoking is cool again because of e-cigarettes, we may just erase all the gains we’ve made.”

Nicotine can harm a child’s developing brain including parts that control attention, learning, mood and impulse control. E-cigarettes also irritate your lungs, throat and eyes.

For more information about e-cigarette use in youth, talk to your child’s pediatrician.

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