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Teen Brains And The Risks of Nicotine.

Safer than smoking doesn’t mean that vaping is safe.

Reasoning, problem solving, comprehension, impulse control, creativity and perseverance all live in the command centre of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is also responsible for learning new skills, making memories, regulating moods and controlling wild impulses. It’s quite vulnerable to the effects of a lot of risky things (including nicotine) as it keeps changing and developing up until we’re 25.

Teens usually start smoking or vaping out of curiosity, rebellion, FOMO, to relieve stress or because someone gave them a go! It’s the nicotine that “makes” them continue because it causes a surge of dopamine in the brain, which is a pleasurable reward. The problem is that repeated use can cause dependence and reduce the release of natural feel good chemicals, and lack of use can cause intense cravings which makes it harder for teens to stop or stay focused. 

We need teens to know:

  • The sale and supply of vape products to under 18 year olds is illegal. 
  • The Ministry of Health’s key messaging is that if you smoke, vaping is less harmful than smoking. For people who don’t smoke, vaping is likely to have some harm and there is still some uncertainty around what that level of harm is yet, because much more data is needed.
  • It appears there could be a problem with teens perceiving that “less harmful” than smoking means that vaping is safe. You don’t have to be good at maths to know that 95% less harmful than smoking still leaves 5% possible harm.
  • Nicotine is a highly addictive substance.
  • Fast delivery of nicotine to the brain means that dependency can become a risk factor. 
  • Teen brains have a different sensitivity to nicotine than adult brains. 
  • Teen brains also build dopamine pleasure receptors faster than adult brains which means they’re going to need more and more nicotine to get the same buzz, which increases chances of dependence. 
  • There is a significant gap between the reality of teen addiction to nicotine and their beliefs about their ability to control their use of the substance.

This vaping facts health NZ website is a great resource.

Vaping risk for teens is firstly more about becoming dependent, and possibly addicted to the nicotine in the product. And secondly, that after sustained use, abrupt cessation or reduction in nicotine it can result in withdrawal which can cause emotional and physiological symptoms including intense craving, irritability, anger, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, restlessness, depressed mood and trouble sleeping. 

We need to get strong, consistent health messages (more relevant to NZ) out to Year 8 or 9 kids because that’s when they’re more open to hearing ideas, forming opinions and making decisions that affect their own health. It’s when they relish access to scientific facts that can combat both the misinformation and appeal they’re being exposed to in real life and probably on Tik-Tok!  At this age, they also could do with practical preparation around how to say ‘no’ to a lot of things that are likely to come their way.

Nurses and teachers in NZ schools dealing with Year 10’s and above are already expressing their concern that not enough is being done to what they see is a growing problem. We may be a little late with vape health messaging to school kids, but not as late as America was. For over a decade they struggled to move quickly enough to issue regulation for e-cigarettes which had strong appeal, high nicotine content, and convenience store availability. As a consequence they experienced a teen vaping epidemic with troubling public health data and statistics which they keep trying to remedy, much like an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff and which most likely contributes to a lot of panic and misinformation that isn’t so relevant for us in NZ. 

Even a lot of the NZ data we have on youth and vaping, is prior to vaping being regulated under the Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products Regulations 2021 Act. The Act does it’s best to strike a balance between ensuring vaping products are available for smokers who want to switch to a less harmful alternative and ensuring these products aren’t marketed or sold to under 18’s. 

Specialist vape stores don’t serve anyone in a school uniform, they ask for ID, and they put 18+ stickers on their courier packages. Their products have nicotine warnings on the packs which have to comply with the highest safety standards to make them safe for customers and later this week vapes become notifiable, meaning a full breakdown of all the ingredients comes into force.

There are a lot of restrictions around all kinds of other things like advertising, and general retailers that aren’t registered specialist stores can now only sell vapes that are tobacco, mint or menthol flavoured to deter youth, but of course more can always be done. 

It can take a months of research to read lots of articles and studies (mostly from other countries) that profess a lot of health risks and say nicotine harms the brain development of young people. The work that suggests this however, comes from animal study evidence, and it isn’t yet confirmed in actual humans.

I think that solutions to discourage teens from vaping are multi pronged. 

We need consistent, stronger messaging for teens.
Safer than smoking doesn’t mean that vaping is safe.

The harm for teens lies more in their risk of becoming dependent on nicotine, and how their body and brain has to cope with intrusive cravings and uncomfortable withdrawal side effects.

We need good policies and persuasive media campaigns about teen vaping rather than moral outrage, aiming for bans and pushing for prescription only options.

We need to at least counteract some of the appeal for teenagers by raising awareness and highlighting the loss of control and independence that occurs if nicotine addiction takes hold.

This is an effective overseas example.

Schools need more support and strategies.
More education is needed to get the message out that vaping is for people wanting to quit smoking, not for those who have never smoked. That vaping has less risk than smoking, but less risk doesn’t mean safe. And most importantly, clear messaging that there is a real risk of dependency to vaping, which can result in addiction and teens may find if difficult to stop without withdrawal symptoms and cravings.

When students are caught vaping, it’s better to treat it as a health issue rather than a disciplinary one. Remove the device until after school, get the student involved in education around what they’re doing, inform the parents, and it’s a good idea for everyone to openly work together to find out why the student is vaping and where they got it from.

We need parents to keep taking responsibility and they need helpful parenting tips for teens.

Do we display good role-modelling? Are our homes smokefree? Do we need quit help?

Do we encourage negotiation? Are our kids clear about our values? Do they know what’s non negotiable? Do we set boundaries and rules and have age appropriate consequences? Do we follow through on those consequences? Do we talk freely enough about risk? Do we listen so they'll talk, and talk in a way that makes them want to listen? Do we ask our kids what they think and feel about different situations and experiences and do we check in often enough to make sure they're safe? Do we grab opportunities for open conversations around smoking and vaping, the same way we might with alcohol, sexual consent, social media risks and dangerous driving?

Teens are experts at being secretive so it's our job to respectfully pay closer attention. Are we monitoring them enough? Do we know what they spend their money on, where they are, who they’re with and what they’re doing? Do we check in with the parents of the friends they say they're with? Are we aware of what social platforms they use and what content they share?

Do we help them find different ways to say ‘no’. Do we make it clear enough that they don’t have to do something if they don’t want to, and do we encourage them to not give in to peer pressure?

Do we allow them enough individual expression? Do we encourage them to be adventurous and take up new and exciting experiences?

We need to be realistic and more understanding of teen beliefs, attitudes, feelings and behaviours.

The choices teens make are shaped by a different set of chemical influences than adults, which is why they can be so much more impulsive.

The novelty seeking desires of teens to find pleasure in risk taking ways is a very real thing and part of their natural development. 

So is being more sensitive and having increased body consciousness. There’s a ton of identity forming and independence going on and it’s often not an easy time for them. 

It’s up to us as adults to remain alert to the fact that they’re just more likely to take risks with their health and safety, including possible use of nicotine and other drugs. And yes, nicotine is a stimulant drug that speeds up the messages travelling between the brain and body. (If you are certain they are vaping or smoking and they say they aren't and you have to take a more extreme approach, there are urine testing kits that detect nicotine residue.)

Look for vaping warning signs:

  • Behaviour changes, mood swings, aggression, anger and agitation.
  • Staying up later or having trouble sleeping.
  • Different friends.
  • More secretive than usual.
  • A film (from the vapour) left on glass or mirrors in their room.
  • Dry cough or wheezing or becoming out of breath quicker in sports.
  • Change in their school performance, concentration or memory.

Their heightened reward drive may explain why some teens are more inclined to take risks than others.

We need to keep steering them towards positive risk-taking which is about learning new things, exploring unfamiliar territory, undertaking physical challenges, trying out for teams, acting, singing, exploring creativity and standing up for a cause.

Other risky behaviours in teens can also include:

  • Sexting and other risky forms of social media use.
  • Unprotected sexual activity.
  • Dangerous dietary behaviours.
  • Alcohol use and binge drinking.
  • Dangerous driving or being a passenger with a dangerous driver.
  • Skipping school.
  • Fighting.
  • Illegal activities like trespassing or vandalism.
  • Smoking (Among adults who are daily smokers, nearly all experience their first cigarette by the age of 18.3)

Teens don’t always take risks, but studies have consistently shown that they’re more likely to vape if they have friends who do, if they have more available money, and if they are monitored less. (In real life and on their socials.)

For teens who want to stop vaping, be hopeful. The cravings, urges and withdrawal symptoms are usually short lived and typically disappear within a few days to a maximum of four weeks. However if you find that nicotine withdrawal symptoms are making stopping difficult, reach out for quit support. The vape quit process is similar to quitting smoking.

  • Learn about the risks so you know your quit whys, and are motivated to change. 
  • Choose a less stressful time to quit, when you can have a lot of restful, quiet time alone.
  • Be prepared for possible mood swings, restlessness and cravings.
  • Drink water and distract yourself, or focus on your breath and ride out the cravings.
  • Get rid of all reminders and equipment.
  • Get counselling and focus on behavioural change techniques.
  • Explore the triggers and temptations, like when you do it and who you do it with and why you do it.
  • Work out ways to initially avoid the people, places and situations that tempt and trigger you.
  • Build your tool box of go-to strategies.
  • Engage in good, healthy, positive distractions. Walk, run, meditate, play. Find natural ways to experience joy and pleasure.
  • Formulate how to say no. 
  • Work on good self care, communication, relaxation and stress reduction.
  • Know that you are highly capable, strong and resilient and that your brain and wellbeing are precious.

And lastly, for parents. Parenting is one of the hardest jobs there is, filled with ever changing challenges! Keep doing your best! If you need a hand to quit smoking or have questions about teen vaping, join me for free, online, so I can help. https://www.facebook.com/quitn...


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