Vaping 101: What Every Parent Needs to Know

In the aftermath of several deaths and hundreds of illnesses across the United States, the government is now considering a ban on flavored vape products that attract younger users, including teenagers. Vaping is also being investigated by state and federal health agencies. All of this follows the Surgeon General declaring in 2018 that e-cigarette use among teens is a public health epidemic, with more than 3.6 million youth using these devices. 

Vaping 101

Parents must take action to prevent this health crisis from impacting their teens. To do that, information is essential. It’s also empowering. You’ve got this! Here’s an overview of what you need to know about vaping — including strategies to help keep your teen from vaping in the first place! 

Health Consequences of Vaping

There is no debating it: Vaping can be dangerous. Because most vape products contain nicotine (the addictive drug found in traditional cigarettes) these devices can damage teenage brains as they develop. 

How exactly? Nicotine alters connections in the brain and this can impact the ability of teens to learn. Mood and impulse control may also be affected. Using nicotine may also increase the likelihood teens will form addictions to other drugs in the future. 

Because e-cigarettes are so new, the long-term consequences are not fully known. However, the substances found in vapes have been linked to serious respiratory problems. Chemicals used in these devices may lead to lung disease and cancer. The CDC warns: “The use of e-cigarettes is unsafe for kids, teens, and young adults.”

What is Vaping?

Created to simulate cigarette smoking, vaping is the act of inhaling and exhaling the contents of an electronic cigarette. The word “vaping” is used because e-cigarettes create what looks to be water vapor, but is actually an aerosol. 

How Vaping Works

There are many types of e-cigarettes. Typically, they’re made up of the following parts: a heating mechanism powered by battery, the battery itself, and a cartridge containing liquid, sometimes called a “pod.” When an individual inhales an e-cigarette, the heating component transforms the liquid inside into an aerosol, that aerosol is then inhaled and exhaled.

What Vapes Look Like

Vapes may be hard to recognize at first. Many look like USB flash drives. Others appear similar to sleek handheld music listening devices. The bottom line: They come in many shapes and sizes and new products are continually being added to the marketplace. 

Types of Liquids Used and Ingredients

Flavored liquids are commonly used. Popular flavors include mango, bubble gum, cotton candy, and mint. Flavorings may be safe to eat, but can be dangerous when inhaled. And, as mentioned earlier, many vape liquids contain nicotine. In some brands, the amount of nicotine in one “pod” is the same amount found in one pack of cigarettes. Marijuana can also be vaped. 

Keep an eye out for small, clear cartridges with colorful tops. Colors reflect specific flavors.

Factors that Contribute to Teen Vaping

  • False sense of safety. There’s the perception that smoking e-cigarettes isn’t dangerous. Parents and teens have routinely heard warnings about using traditional cigarettes; Information about e-cigarettes has been less available, causing a false sense of safety.
  • Marketing and availability. Many e-cigarette makers target youth with sleek designs (think devices that look like flash drives) and those youth-appealing flavors. Devices are also relatively easy to buy, many being sold in gas stations, grocery stores, and online.
  • Peer pressure. Because vaping doesn’t have the same stigma as traditional cigarettes, teens may feel even more pressure to do it with their friends. Peer pressure also ramps up because vaping can happen undetected virtually anywhere, in the school bathroom, even during class.

You think your teen is vaping. What to look for right now.

Consider these three P’s:

  1. Paraphernalia. An e-cigarette may look like a memory stick for a computer. A vape pen often looks like a traditional writing tool, except it’s usually metallic or black and has a tiny window on the side through which liquid is visible. Also keep an eye out for small, clear cartridges with colorful tops. Colors reflect specific flavors. For example, green typically means mint flavoring.
  2. Purchases. Read your credit card bills carefully. Inspect purchases made online, especially from retailers you don’t recognize.
  3. Presentation. Be mindful of your teen’s appearance. Pay attention to significant changes in your son or daughter’s behavior. Specifically, vaping marijuana may lead to bloodshot eyes, increased appetite, and a shift in friend groups.

You know your teen is vaping. What to do right now.

  1. Don’t yell. Be loving. Realize your teen may be addicted to nicotine.
  2. Encourage peer support. Not all peer pressure is bad. It can also be great! Urge your teen to enlist his or her friends to quit. If a group typically vapes together, friends can make a pact they’re all going to stop.
  3. Get help. Talk with your teen’s guidance counselor. Connect with your son’s college or university, many schools have mental health experts on staff. Call your daughter’s pediatrician or discuss your concerns at her next visit. You may also want to reach out to Crisis Text Line, a free, 24/7 support service.
Do You Know How to Help Teens Handle Peer Pressure?
Find out if you know how to support your teen to deal with peer pressure.

Best Strategies to Prevent Teens from Vaping

There are many effective strategies to prevent tweens and teens from experimenting with e-cigarettes. Below are three to consider right now. For more, read Preventing Teen Substance Use here.

  • Be communicative. Talking is key. You may find openings for conversation when you see someone vaping on the street or on a TV show. We know the best ways to have meaningful dialogue with teens. The most essential strategies include maintaining your cool (even when you’re most concerned) and choosing the right words to ensure your point of view is heard. (Read more on effective communication techniques here.)
  • Be clear. Use “I” statements to get your point across and communicate concerns in terms of your desire to keep your teen safe rather than under your control. You might say things like: “I’m worried about your health,” or “I’m nervous this will lead you to smoking cigarettes.” There’s evidence this kind of specific language helps teens hear parents with greater clarity and less defensiveness. (To learn more on why this works, take a look at “Avoid Conflict with an “I Statement”,” a piece written by Dr. Ken Ginsburg, Co-Founder and Director of Programs at the CPTC.
  • Be an example. People smoke as one way to cope with stress. Be a role model by reducing your own stress in healthful ways. Parents who take time for themselves – going for walks, meditating – show children how to safely cope with adversity. And finally, remember even though teens are likely spending more and more time with their friends, parents still have more influence. Don’t forget your continuing power to help shape your teen’s life.

Essential Reality Check

It’s important to keep in mind that you are your teen’s most powerful ally. You’re best-positioned to help your teen handle challenges, including the pull to vape. 

So what’s the final takeaway? Be an active parent. Stay engaged. Teens grow up but your support remains critical — no matter how old they are. 

About Allison Gilbert

Allison Gilbert is Senior Writer for the CPTC. Her pieces cover an array of topics including self-care, bullying, grief, and resilience. Allison is author of numerous books and speaks across the country to corporations, non-profits, and community groups. You can learn more by visiting

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