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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

A Parent's Life A Parent's Life

What Parents Need To Know about E-Cigarettes

June 17, 2014

By Claire McCarthy M.D.

Boston Children's Hospital

E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that look just like cigarettes. Instead of inhaling smoke from them, you inhale a vapor. (This is sometimes called "vaping.") The vapor often contains nicotine. E-cigarettes are usually marketed as safe or safer than cigarettes.

As a parent, you need to know about e-cigarettes and talk to your kids about them.

That's because a recent study showed that use has doubled in middle and high school students. It doesn't help that they come in flavors such as bubble gum or chocolate. And even more concerning is the fact that the advertising of e-cigarettes to teens has more than doubled.

Know the Dangers

For smokers who are trying to quit, e-cigarettes can be very helpful. They provide something to hold and inhale. These are two things many smokers have trouble giving up. At least with an e-cigarette, there isn't the tar and other chemicals that can be so damaging to a smoker's health. 

But for youth, especially those who have never smoked a cigarette, e-cigarettes can be dangerous. First, we don't know the long-term effects of inhaling the vapor from e-cigarettes. Also, using them can lead to an addiction to nicotine. Any addiction is worrisome in youth, but if the nicotine addiction causes youth to start smoking cigarettes, it's particularly worrisome. 

We don't know for sure that using e-cigarettes leads to smoking regular cigarettes. But do we really want to take the chance? And we definitely don't want our teens becoming addicted to nicotine — or having any other health risks from the vapor. 

Until recently, there has been no regulation or oversight of the sale of e-cigarettes, except when they are sold as a smoking cessation device. But things are beginning to change. More states are starting to regulate the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. We need to make that true across all states. And we need to stop the marketing of e-cigarettes to minors. But in the meantime, parents are the best defense.

What you can do now

Talk to your teen about their tobacco use. Make sure they understand the dangers of all forms of tobacco. 

Find out what they know and think about e-cigarettes. Ask if their friends are using them. (If they are, your teen's risk of use is higher). Talk to them about nicotine addiction, and about the risks of cigarette smoking. Watch the ads together, and talk about how they are manipulative and misleading. 

If your child isn't a teen yet, you can still talk to them about e-cigarettes. Make sure your child knows that they are a bad idea. Maybe when your child becomes a teen, he or she won't even consider trying them! 

Remember, kids really do care what their parents think, even if they don't always act like it. So take action — and help keep your child safe and healthy.

Claire McCarthy, M.D., a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications, is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She is an attending physician and Medical Communications Editor at Children's Hospital Boston.

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