Drugs

How should the epidemic of e-cigarettes among teens be addressed? Health experts weigh in

On December 18th, the Surgeon General announced an advisory on e-cigarette use. In it, he called the rise in popularity of products like Juul an epidemic. Juul and its competitors in the e-cigarette industry have come under fire for potential health risks their products impose on users (largely teens). E-cigarettes contain addictive levels of nicotine, yet they appeal to youth with kid-friendly flavors in ways regular cigarettes often do not, presenting a unique challenge for public health experts.

In an interview with the chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, U.S. News covered various efforts to reduce the use of e-cigarettes. Experts have drawn many ideas from successful policies with traditional tobacco products, like taxation. Experiences with conventional cigarettes have taught us that price is important: where cigarettes cost more, people smoke less. When it comes to youth, who generally have a lower incomes than adults, a tax-induced price hike could be even more effective. Other time-tested interventions include smoke-free indoor air policies and reducing flavors with “blatant appeal to children.”

The medical officer also noted how regular cigarettes were once marketed as sexy, like Juul and its new technology are attractive to kids today. Yet social acceptance of cigarettes has reversed as cigarette health threats were exposed—the same change in norms could be possible with e-cigarette consumption.  

Other health experts caution against conflating traditional cigarettes with e-cigarettes. After all, there are notable differences between the two: the amount of nicotine in e-cigarettes varies widely; current laws allow e-cigarettes in many areas where traditional cigarettes are prohibited; and, unlike traditional cigarettes, users can stop and restart “smoking” e-cigarettes (e-cigarettes “burn” using a battery rather than flame, meaning users take take single puffs at a time rather than committing to an entire cigarette).  Mirroring e-cigarette policy with traditional cigarette policy in ways that fails to account for these differences could render the new interventions ineffective.

Ultimately, more research is needed on the health risks e-cigarettes impose on teens before effective interventions will be made possible on a nationwide level.

Smartphones: A True Addiction?

A recent blog post talked about the need for mobile app designers to consider the active role that teens can and should play in staying safe online. It’s not just the responsibility of parents to restrict a teenager’s online presence. Instead, it’s much more productive for parents to team up with their children in order to start a conversation about Internet safety.

 

This week’s post involves one of the risks that parents are undoubtedly concerned about - the risk that teenagers are addicted to their smartphones. Anecdotally, we all can think of a parent disapproving of their children’s inability to look away from their phones for an extended period of time. This problem certainly is not unique to teenagers. Researchers are only beginning to find out what impact smartphones have on our health and our social networks.

 

An article in the NYTimes poses a compelling question: are teenagers replacing other addictive substances with their smartphones? There is good news and bad news that might suggest this is the case. The good news is that teen drug use (trying or regularly using drugs, including alcohol) has gone down in the past decade. This trend is true for all students overall regardless of their demographics. The bad or neutral news, depending on how you look at it, is that this is the same time period that smartphones have exploded onto the scene.

 

There is no way to prove that this coincidence is definitely a causal effect. There are far too many factors at play, including, but not limited to the financial crisis in the past decade, and the extensive anti-drug educational campaigns that might have started to pay off. Also, drug use among college students has not fallen in the same time period.

 

But it’s important to think about the implications of what some experts call a “portable dopamine pump” in a teenager’s everyday life. In the article, the writer explained that smartphones and their various apps provide feedback loops for users and the members of their social networks. Teens have said that they feel “really good” when using their phones for social media.  


Researchers are looking into this trend with a lot of interest, and so should we. The new “high” formed by excessive phone usage could shape teenagers’ social priorities and experiences for years to come.