Jason Mandelaris: Vaping among Utah students is down, but it’s still a serious concern

As teens return to school, we need more conversations about the dangers of vaping

Summer is behind us, the school year is underway and teens are back in the classroom, where sometimes what they learn isn’t exactly part of the curriculum. It’s probably news to no one that teens and young children learn from one another, experience peer pressure and can pick up unhealthy habits while at school.

Research has shown that many students learn about vaping – including how to vape – from peers at school. With recent news that Juul Labs, one of the largest vaping companies in the world, paid nearly half a billion dollars to resolve allegations that it marketed vape products to teens in the U.S., it appears the connection between schools and underage vaping may not be a coincidence.

Students who attend schools with higher levels of vaping are more likely to be under the false impression that using e-cigarettes is safe.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

We know vaping hastens death. Research shows vaping increases inflammation throughout the body, raising the risk for life-threatening health issues such as cardiovascular disease. Young adults who only vape are five times more likely to get COVID-19 than their peers who don’t, according to this study in the Journal of Adolescent Health. Vaping also severely impacts oral health, which is directly related to increased risk for long-term threats of dental decay and cancer and compounds many other health issues.

We can see it on their faces. E-cigarettes contain toxins including formaldehyde, cadmium, nickel and lead that damage the skin. Chemicals in e-cigarettes, like propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin and acetaldehyde, can harm both hard and soft tissue in the mouth, while nicotine reduces blood flow in the mouth, resulting in gum disease and even permanent tooth loss.

It isn’t just the nicotine that is causing damage. A majority of teenagers report that candy flavors were the reason they first tried an e-cigarette. Perhaps ironic, these flavored vapes, such as “tutti frutti” and “cotton candy,” increase risk for cavities and other oral disease just like actual candies. Vape flavor additives double the growth of bacteria in the mouth that cause tooth decay, while also decreasing the hardness of tooth enamel by 27%, limiting natural protection against that bacteria.

Poor oral and overall health in adolescence frequently leads to even worse oral and overall health during adulthood. But not everyone knows these real and devastating impacts vaping can have.

That’s why DentaQuest is working with America’s Toothfairy to develop and share resources that help educators, parents, and teens talk — not argue — about vaping. As an organization focused on prevention, DentaQuest is passionate about educating young people and parents about the risks to everyone’s health.

The work that the health care community, educators and advocates have done to increase awareness about the dangers of vaping is working.

One estimate from the National Youth Tobacco Survey pegs the number of middle and high school students using e-cigarettes at around 2 million in 2021. In Utah, data from 2021 indicates that fewer eighth, tenth and twelfth graders are vaping than were in 2019, which is something Utahns can be proud of. But still, nearly 10% of high school students in the state report they had recently used e-cigarettes or vape products.

It is great that Utah has adopted policies designed to reduce teen vaping, given e-cigarettes have potentially greater consequences for young people than traditional smoking, including risks of mood disorders and addiction, as well as serious impacts on oral health. These policies put Utah below the national average when it comes to teen vaping.

But doing more to raise awareness of the negative health consequences of vaping and talking directly to young people about the impact of vaping on their body will further drive down rates.

We can help by talking about it. Educating youth and empowering them with refusal skills to resist marketing and peer pressure ensures fewer young people are harmed by e-cigarettes. It’s why we must support the national, evidence-based CATCH My Breath school program, which reduces students’ likelihood to experiment with vaping by 45%.

And open conversation with adults in and outside of school is key to helping teens make healthier decisions for their future. Take the time to educate yourself and then talk about vaping with the teens in your life.

The health of a generation depends on it.

Jason Mandelaris

Jason Mandelaris is a pediatric dentist and Utah dental director for DentaQuest, an oral health organization. He received his DMD degree as well as his pediatric dentistry specialty training from Case Western Reserve University and Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. He is the past president of the Utah Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.