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Q&A: Leading psychiatrist unpicks the ‘vaping epidemic’ (Includes interview)

This year there have been hundreds of new lung injuries reported due to e-cigarettes. Due to this, 2019 saw vape products temporarily been banned in Massachusetts. But despite the dangers, vaping is extremely popular, with 3.6 million teens in the U.S. admitting to vaping.

To undersatnd the growth in vaping and the associated health implications, Digital Journal spoke with Vinay Saranga M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist, who is founder of Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry, and is an expert in tobacco addiction and cessation.

Digital Journal: Do e-cigarettes help to wean people off tobacco products?

Vinay Saranga: There are a lot of mixed opinions on this, and in fact a number of studies have been conducted to find out if e-cigarettes help people stop using tobacco products. The results aren’t 100% conclusive. For the most part, what we are finding is that e-cigarettes do not help people wean off tobacco products. It’s important to note that some people have had success, but for the most part, e-cigarettes should not be used if your intent is to eliminate the use of tobacco products, even if you see advertising telling you that it can help you break the habit for good.

DJ: Are people taking up e-cigarettes who have not smoked before?

Saranga: Yes! This is especially the case among the younger population. Vaping has become a very significant problem in schools. In fact, The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that teens are more likely to use e-cigarettes than traditional cigarettes, and teens who use e-cigarettes are more likely to start smoking. The statistics are very alarming and the prevalence of past month nicotine vaping was more than 1 in 4 students in 12th grade; 1 in 5 in 10th grade, and 1 in 11 in eighth grade. Vaping has become a national epidemic.

DJ: What are the health risks around e-cigarettes?

Saranga: To determine the health risk, we must know what is in the e-cigarette. If we focus specifically on nicotine, the health risks can include: increase risk of lung cancer, throat cancer and oral cancer; increased risk of heart disease and high blood pressure; you can develop emphysema, have difficulty breathing or labored breathing; and of course become dependent on nicotine causing unpleasant side effects when you can’t get your fix.

DJ: Is there any evidence that e-cigarette firms are targeting young people?

Saranga: I believe e-cigarette firms are indeed targeting our youth. According to Truth Initiative, several e-cigarette companies were offering scholarship money to youth for writing essays about vaping. They also developed flavors such as cotton candy that many youths would find appealing. E-cigarette companies also sponsored various music festivals and events that targeted a younger crowd.

The other thing to keep in mind is that teenagers are very impressionable. If something is marketed as being cool or ‘in,’ teenagers are going to flock to it. E-cigarette companies also know that, generally speaking, older people like parents and grandparents know by now that anything to do with tobacco products are dangerous and unhealthy. Therefore, the very survival of these companies is with the up and coming generation.

DJ: What should a parent do if they suspect that their children are vaping?

Saranga: The first thing parents should do is be a role model. If parents smoke, children are more likely to try smoking, be it traditional cigarettes or e-cigarettes.

Before you assume a child is vaping, looks for changes in their behavior. Do they all of a sudden have a new group of friends? Are they experiencing more mood swings than typical teenage behavior? Have they lost interest in activities they usually enjoy and taken a liking to newer, edgier interests? What are they doing on their free time?

Check their clothing for a scent. Remember, it might not smell like cigarette smoke. You’re looking for anything from bubble gum to chocolate candy or even apple.

Check their social media accounts. Are they talking about it? Are they posting photos of people vaping? What pages are they following? What are their friends posting about?

Check with your child’s school. Unfortunately, vaping is a real problem in most high schools and even middle schools around the country.

Department of Health and Human Services Center for Disease Control report  Evaluation of Chemical Ex...

Department of Health and Human Services Center for Disease Control report, Evaluation of Chemical Exposures at a Vape Shop
Date: July 2017

DJ: What are the do’s and don’ts of talking to children about vaping?

Saranga: Having these difficult conversations with your children isn’t easy, but it is essential. The first thing parents need to do is familiarize themselves with the facts about e-cigarette use. Sadly, many teens are not aware of the dangers. They believe vaping is simply water mixed with a harmless tasty substance and they aren’t aware that nicotine is involved.
Make sure your teenagers are aware of the recent news of people dying and being severely injured due to vaping. This is definitely something that carries substantial health risks and your children need to know this because they may view it as an activity with no consequences.

There are many topics where we recommend parents take a lighter approach when discussing with their children, but this is not one of them. If your children walkaway being scared of e-cigarettes, that’s not a bad thing.
Use any opportunity to discuss smoking. Let’s say you are out in public with your children and see someone light up. You can say something like, “See that man over there smoking, what do you think about that?” Be direct in your messaging and follow up to whatever your child says with something like, “Such a shame that he is setting himself up for lung cancer and other terrible diseases.”

There are many great resources that can help parents. If you don’t know where to begin, talk to your child’s pediatrician or a child psychologist/psychiatrist. You can also find plenty of valuable resources online.

DJ: How can communities and schools can come together to stop the vaping epidemic?

Saranga: In order to eliminate vaping, we must recognize that this is everyone’s responsibility and we must all work together. This includes community leaders, school staff, law enforcement, parents and children.

For any parents, teachers, administration, school districts or community leaders that deny this is a real problem, it’s time to wake up because this has become a national epidemic and it’s one that severely impacts our youth. If you don’t think this is happening in your community, think again.

Vaping use among teens has jumped 78% over the last few years.

Vaping use among teens has jumped 78% over the last few years.
micadew from US (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When students learn about the dangers of tobacco and nicotine, we must make sure we are including e-cigarettes in these lessons. School administration must familiarize itself with the various vaping products and flavors, keeping in mind that much of today’s paraphernalia is disguised to look like common items like a USB Drive, for example.

Increased education, awareness and consequences must be on the agenda for all communities and schools around the country.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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