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Science has long shown that there is no safe form of tobacco use. Moreover, young people are particularly vulnerable to developing a strong addiction to nicotine. I am speaking ahead of World No Tobacco Day. Each year, the World Health Organization (WHO) organizes this day as a way to encourage people to avoid tobacco.

This year, the WHO aims to give a platform to young people across the world to “urge governments to shield them from predatory tobacco marketing tactics.” According to one report, children are using e-cigarettes, or vaping, at rates higher than adults in all regions. Worryingly, the health body estimates that, globally, 37 million young people aged 13 to 15 years use tobacco.

Young people are at particular risk from smoking or vaping.

This is because doing so as a child or teenager can have life-long effects on brain development. All forms of nicotine use have health risks, from vaping liquid nicotine and chewing tobacco to smoking cigarettes and shisha – even occasionally or without inhaling. Anything containing nicotine is addictive. Furthermore, almost all nicotine-delivery methods also contain chemicals such as acetaldehyde and formaldehyde. Research has indicated that these chemicals can cause cancer. Consequently, acrolein, diacetyl, and diethylene glycol can cause lung disease.

Vaping is particularly challenging as we do not yet know the full implications for health. This is despite the fact that scientists have linked it to acute lung inflammation, strong levels of addiction and dental problems, among others. Furthermore, we know that many of the same mechanisms that cause lung issues in smoking are involved. 

In addition to the harm from chemicals and additives in vapes, some vaping liquids contain very high levels of nicotine.  Naturally, this makes them very addictive. They are also often more tolerated in public spaces, with more opportunities for a quick puff. The result is that individual consumption may be higher than is the case with cigarettes, for example.

Short and long-term consequences

There are short- and long-term dangers associated with tobacco use. Short-term effects could include a persistent cough, asthma attack and acute lung inflammation. Long-term use could see the user develop conditions such as heart disease and emphysema. 

Particularly concerning, though, is developing an addiction at a young age. Using nicotine as a teenager can have life-long effects on brain development. Studies suggest that smoking from a young age could increase the likelihood of prolonged tobacco addiction or the risk of addiction to other problematic substances. In addition, the compulsion to smoke can interfere with concentration and daily life. Another issue is that young people might be using tobacco to self-medicate if they have anxiety or depression. Thereby masking the symptoms so that the condition remains undiagnosed and untreated.

The harmful effects of nicotine use are cumulative.

People often do not realize the extent of the harm they are doing to themselves. It’s not until they develop a chronic health condition.  

No matter which type of nicotine delivery method individuals are addicted to, or the frequency of use, they can benefit from quitting at any point, but the earlier, the better. Research has shown that no amount of smoking is risk-free and even light smokers can develop deadly lung diseases, while even a new smoker can develop inflammation and damage to their lungs.

Parents need to keep lines of communication open so that they can talk to their children about the risks of using tobacco, and also offer support to quit if needed. 

Giving up nicotine can be really difficult, and people typically make several attempts before they are successful. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution, which is why programs such as Cleveland Clinic’s Smoking Cessation Program take a comprehensive and multipronged approach.

Humberto Choi MD

Humberto Choi MD

Humberto Choi, MD is a pulmonologist specialized in thoracic oncology and a medical intensivist. He is trained in advanced bronchoscopy, ultrasound guided chest procedures, and ultrasound guided vascular procedures. He is actively involved in the training of internal medicine residents, and pulmonary and critical care fellows. Dr Choi is a specialist with the Cleveland Clinic Global Health System.

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