This is the second in a four-part series.
April 26, 2023 – Jake Warn calls vaping “a toxic artificial love.”
Jake, of Winslow, ME, was 16 years old when he began vaping. Unlike cigarettes, vaping can be odorless, and its smoke leaves no trace – allowing him and his friends to use the devices in school bathrooms without fear of being caught.
He would use an entire cartridge containing the vape liquid, the equivalent to smoking one pack of tobacco cigarettes, within one school day. By fall semester of his first year in college, Jake said he had increased his use even more.
“It got pricey, so that’s when I really started to notice” the extent of his dependency, he said recently.
Vaping rates among teenagers in Maine doubled from 15.3% to 28.7% between 2017 and 2019, while Jake was in high school. In 2021, 11% of high schoolers across the nation said they regularly smoked e-cigarettes, and an estimated 28% have at least tried the devices, according to the CDC.
The FDA classifies e-cigarettes as a tobacco product because many contain nicotine, which comes from tobacco. Like Jake, the habit is likely to carry into adulthood for many who start in their teenage years, experts say.
Electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) such as vapes have been touted by their makers and some in the medical field as a healthier alternative to cigarettes and as a way to help smokers give up the habit.
But, that’s not how Jake – who had never used traditional cigarettes – picked up vaping, or how he sold the idea to his mother.
“’It’s all organic and natural flavoring, it’s just flavored water,’” Mary Lou Warn recalled her son saying to her. She researched the health effects of vaping but didn’t find much online. But “I knew they were dangerous because you don’t put anything in your lungs that isn’t fresh air.”
A determined athlete in high school, Jake found his asthma worsened as he transitioned to college, especially when he ran a track meet or played in a soccer game.
Mary Lou Warn noticed changes off the field, too.
“He was coughing constantly, he wasn’t sleeping well, he wasn’t eating well,” she said. “I knew the addiction was taking over.”
Vaping irritated Jake’s throat, and he would get nosebleeds that he couldn’t stop, she said.
Since Warn first looked into the effects of e-cigarettes on respiratory health back in 2017, many studies have examined first-time smokers who never used combustible tobacco products and the short-term health outcomes. Studies suggest that vaping may worsen bronchitis and asthma, raise blood pressure, interfere with brain development in young users, suppress the immune system, and increase the risk of getting a chronic lung disease. Other research on mice and cell cultures has found the vapor or extracts from vapes damage the chemical structure of DNA.
Still, the limited number of long-term human studies has made it hard to pinpoint what the health outcomes of e-cigarette users will be in the future. Conclusive studies linking commercial cigarette use to deaths from heart disease and cancer didn’t emerge until the mid-1950s, decades after manufacturers began mass production and marketing in the early 20th century.
Years could pass before researchers gain a clearer understanding of the health implications of long-term e-cigarette use, said Nigar Nargis, PhD, senior scientific director of tobacco control research at the American Cancer Society.
“There hasn’t been any such study to establish the direct link from [vaping] to cancer, but it is understood that it [vaping] may promote the development of cancer and lung damage and inflammation,” she said.
For decades, advocates built awareness of the harms of tobacco use, which led to a sharp decline in tobacco-related illnesses such as lung cancer. But, Hilary Schneider, Maine’s director of government relations for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said she fears the uptick in the use of vapes – especially among those who never smoked or those who use both combustible and e-cigarettes – may reverse declines in the rates of smoking-relating diseases.
Vapes “basically have created a pediatric tobacco-use epidemic,” Schneider said. “What we’re seeing is unprecedented tobacco use rates, higher rates than we’ve seen in decades.”
“It’s new and it’s just been marketed in a way that we’re really fighting the false narrative put out there by makers of these products that are trying to make them appealing to kids,” said Rachel Boykan, MD, a clinical professor of pediatrics and attending doctor at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital in Stony Brook, NY.
The flavor “Red Bull,” in particular, hooked Jake. And though he wasn’t aware of it at the time, nicotine packed into the pods may have kept him from quitting: The average nicotine concentration in e-cigarettes more than doubled from 2013 to 2018, according to a study by the Truth Initiative and the CDC.
The immediate risks of nicotine on the developing brain are well-documented. Studies suggest that nicotine – which is found in vape products – may impact adolescents’ ability to learn, remember, and maintain attention.
But many adolescents and young adults who use e-cigarettes say that vaping helps ease anxiety and keep them attentive, which also adds to the complexity of their dependency, according to Boykan.
Nicotine “actually interrupts neural circuits, that it can be associated with more anxiety, depression, attention to learning, and susceptibility to other addictive substances,” she said. “That is enough to make it very scary.”
Jake also said a social environment where so many of his friends vaped also made it difficult for him to quit.
“You’re hanging out with your friends at night, and all of them are using it, and you’re trying to not to,” he said.
Jake eventually took a semester off from college for an unrelated surgery, and he moved home and away from his vaping classmates. He eventually transferred to a different college and lived at home, where no one vaped and where he wasn’t allowed to smoke in the house, he said.
“He came home and we took him to a doctor, and they didn’t know quite how to handle kids and addiction to e-cigarettes,” Mary Lou Warn said.
Not fully understanding the long-term health implications of e-cigarette use has stopped many health care providers from offering clear messaging on the risk of vaping to current and potential users.
“It’s taken pediatricians time to ask the right questions and recognize nicotine addiction” from vaping, said Boykan, who’s also chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics section on nicotine and tobacco prevention and treatment. “It’s just hit us so fast.”
But once pediatricians do identify a nicotine dependency, it can be difficult to treat, Boykan said. Many pediatricians now recognize that e-cigarette addiction may occur in children as early as middle school.
“We don’t have a lot of evidence-based treatments for kids to recommend,” she said.
Will Vaping Be a ‘Phase’?
Aware of his vaping dependency and the possible risks to his long-term health, Jake, now 23, said he’s lessened his use, compared to his college days, but still struggles to kick the habit for good.
“I’d like to not be able to use all the time, not to feel the urge,” he said. “But I think over time, it’ll just kind of phase out.”
But his mother said quitting may not be that simple.
“This will be a lifelong journey,” she said. “When I think of who he is, addiction is something he will always have. It’s a part of him now.”