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Vaping: Creating a New Generation of Nicotine Addiction

by Connor Baker

December 2019

The use of e-cigarettes has exploded in popularity due to advertising that they are a safe alternative to an otherwise unhealthy habit. But if they are safe, why all the fuss? The answer is not in the absence of smoke, but the presence of nicotine.

Vaping is the slang term for how e-cigarettes get nicotine into the body. With vaping, nicotine is dissolved in a liquid and heated until it becomes steam. The user takes a deep breath and sucks this steam into the lungs where it enters the bloodstream and travels to the brain. Once nicotine gets to the brain, it triggers the release of "feel-good" chemicals in the brain's reward center. The brain starts to continually crave nicotine because it likes feeling good.

Understanding nicotine's effect on the brain makes it easier to understand the results of a recent scientific study comparing e-cigarettes with the more traditional methods of weaning smokers from nicotine by using patches and gum. After a year, only a small percentage of the study group were still using patches and gum, and the vast majority were still vaping which means they had simply replaced their smoking habit with a vaping habit.

Another concern with nicotine's ability to trigger the brain's feel-good chemicals is that scientists say that process can actually alter the development of the young brain's reward system and lead to use of other addictive drugs. Teens with nicotine addiction are also at increased risk for depression, anxiety, and addiction to other drugs. Learning that 40 percent of high school students who had started vaping had no prior use of any other tobacco product, the U.S. Surgeon General became concerned because e-cigarettes have become the tobacco product of choice among America's youth. North Dakota's youth are no exception. A 2017 survey showed that over 20 percent of the state's high school students had vaped at least once in the prior month.

Possibly the most concerning finding facing healthcare providers is that there is now proof that e-cigarettes have created a nicotine addiction in a generation that would otherwise have been unlikely to pick up the habit. It may take years to discover the true effects of long-term e-cigarette use and vaping. That wait must be weighed against what is currently known: vaping is not good for the brain, not effective in weaning from nicotine, and not a harmless habit for North Dakota youth.

For smokers who want to quit, talk to your healthcare provider, consider turning to traditional methods like patches or gum, or contact the ND Quits helpline at 1-800-QUIT-NOW. Do not be afraid to take up the conversation with teenagers, grandchildren, and loved ones about the health concerns surrounding vaping.

This article also appeared in the December 2019 issue of the Dickinson Press.

About the Author

Connor Baker is a third year medical student at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences. He was selected as a Dickinson participant for the school's ROME program, or Rural Opportunities in Medical Education. The program includes teaching student doctors the importance of rural newspapers. As a future rural healthcare leader, Baker has written this column to provide health information for his ROME community. The information is not for diagnosis or treatment and should not be used in place of previous medical advice provided by a licensed practitioner.