Avera Medical Minute: What are the dangers of vaping?

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - The Food and Drug Administration is calling it an epidemic. The commissioner of the FDA, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, said the number of teenagers using electronic cigarettes is concerning. According to research released by the FDA, the number of high school students using e-cigarettes jumped 78% between 2017 and 2018. That number is slightly lower among middle schoolers. About 48% more of them are vaping.

Electronic cigarettes were originally developed for adults to help them quit smoking cigarettes. Dr. Anthony Hericks, who is a pulmonologist at Avera, said the problem now is that kids have picked them up.

"66% of kids don't even know there's nicotine in there, and a lot of parents don't even know what vaping is," Dr. Hericks said. "We have no clue what they're putting in their body."

Nicotine is a stimulant, so it can make you feel more alert and vigilant.

"The problem with children are is their brains do not develop in what we call the prefrontal cortex, which is the brain where we have our executive function and our stimulus control, so are we going to do abhorrent things? Are we going to take risky behavior? That doesn't develop until we're 26 years old," he said.

Dr. Hericks said a normal cigarette contains between 8 and 20 milligrams of nicotine. After smoking just one e-cigarette, you could expose yourself to nearly the same amount of nicotine you'd find in an entire pack of cigarettes.

"So when you take a kid and give them nicotine, nicotine is just as potent as heroin and cocaine as far as its addictive potential," he said. "And they think children are much higher or much less resistant to that addiction."

The assistant principal at O'Gorman High School, Alex Anderson, said vaping is a hot topic among administrators across South Dakota.

"The difficulty is it's really hard to catch because the devices are really small. They often look like a pen, a highlighter or even a USB port, and also the odor is not very strong," Anderson said.

O'Gorman's focus is on educating students and parents about the health dangers of vaping. The school also tries to help students who are struggling to kick the addiction.

"We have a counselor, a prevention counselor, who is hired through Prairie View, who is in our building three days a week," Anderson said. "They do an assessment, and they determine how big of an issue is it with this student, and they put together a game plan to try to help that student no longer vape."

Anderson said they've also included a section in the school's newsletter for different statistics and things parents can look out for with vaping.

Dr. Hericks said some of those things to pay attention to with teenagers are a decrease in appetite, a moody personality, secretive behaviors, or an oral fixation of having something in your mouth.

"The really hard part is nicotine is so addictive that especially in a child, one hit off an e-cigarette or vape device may actually get them hooked right away," Dr. Hericks said.

So the goal is to educate now to stop this epidemic from growing. Dr. Hericks said when cigarettes first came out, many people didn't see the health risks involved in them. So it's important to have these educational discussions about vaping now, so you're not wishing to turn back the clock in the future.