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How to talk to teens about link between vaping, cigarette use and COVID-19 risks

Nicole Villalpando
Austin American-Statesman
Young people who vape are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, according to a recent medical study

A new study confirms many parents' suspicions: The link between e-cigarettes, aka vaping, and future cigarette smoking in teens is high. In fact, the likelihood of becoming a smoker is about four times higher in teens who used e-cigarettes than in teens who did not, according to a new study published this month in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

That belief that e-cigarettes were a harmless alternative to smoking has, quite frankly, gone up in smoke as teens and adults have been showing up in emergency rooms with lung damage.

A study out of Stanford University found a link between teens who had vaped or used cigarettes or both in the last 30 days had an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. They were almost five times as likely to get the disease and then five times more likely to experience symptoms.

All of this is concerning to parents of teenagers. Vaping feels like it's everywhere in middle school and high school.

E-cigarettes come in a variety of shapes and sizes and could have cartridges with flavored liquids, nicotine or THC in them, but parents might not be able to tell.

For parents, it can be hard to track whether your kid is using e-cigarettes. They can be disguised as USB flash drives, pens, lipsticks or even an asthma inhaler. They don't have that distinct smell that permeates everything the way cigarettes do. 

Often, parents have no idea that their teen is doing it until it's become a habit, and it goes from flavors to nicotine to THC, the addictive chemical in marijuana. 

Dr. Kavita Patel, a pediatric pulmonologist at Texas Children's Specialty Care, says parents need to arm themselves with information to begin having the conversation early (kids already know what an e-cigarette is before they hit the teen years). She suggestions going to reputable websites such as the American Lung Association and the surgeon general's office. 

"Avoid sounding critical or judgmental," she says. "You're trying to foster an open conversation."

You can bring it up naturally as you pass a vape shop or if you see someone vaping. 

You want to ask questions to figure out what they know and what they don't know about it, including if they believe that it is safer than smoking. "We're learning that's not the case," Patel says. 

Ask them if they've been approached about it or are interested in trying it. 

Some information to share with them is what vaping does to the body. Heavy metals and volatile chemicals are aerosolized and travel a long distance into the lower lungs. That can trigger inflammation in the lungs, making it more difficult to breathe. 

While there is a lot of research about cigarette smoking, e-cigarettes are so new, we just don't know all the long-term effects, Patel says. 

Some of what she worries about is the "cool factor" that has been so targeted to youth. The study in Pediatrics found kids who had no intention of smoking cigarettes became e-cigarette smokers and later on cigarette smokers. If they use e-cigarette cartridges with nicotine in them, teens develop nicotine dependence. If their cartridges don't have nicotine, they still develop the intention to smoke.