In June 2022, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned Juul Labs, Inc., from importing, marketing, or selling any vaping products. The FDA’s decision was lauded by many experts who have long expressed concern about the health effects of vaping. Most critics of vaping cite their potential to cause physical harm – but research indicates that there may also be a problematic association between vaping and mental health.
What is Vaping?
Vape devices are often referred to as electronic cigarettes or e-cigarettes. These battery-operated devices allow users to inhale the fumes of liquid solutions (“vape juice”) that contain a combination of nicotine, chemicals, and flavored additives. Some vape juice pods contain THC, which is the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis (marijuana).
Some vaping devices are designed to be used once and then discarded. Others can be recharged and used multiple times. For rechargeable devices, the vape juice is purchased in small pods that can be attached to the devices.
Vaping has been marketed as a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes. Vape manufacturers have also used a variety of enticing flavor profiles such as candy- and fruit-flavored juices to attract people who have avoided traditional cigarettes due to health concerns and/or taste. These efforts have turned vaping into a multibillion dollar industry. They have also helped to make vaping an extremely popular activity among teenagers and young adults.
The National Institute on Drug abuse (NIDA) and the FDA are two of the many agencies and organizations that have been paying attention to the popularity of vaping among younger people.
In 2020, NIDA reported the following data about vaping among college-aged young adults:
- In 2017, 6% of college students said they had vaped tobacco at least once is the previous 30 days. By 2019, that percentage had soared to 22%.
- The rate of college students who said they had vaped cannabis in the past month rose from 5% in 2017 to 14% in 2019.
- Among young adults who were not enrolled in a college or university, the tobacco vaping rate was 8% in 2017 and 18% in 2019.
- The cannabis vaping rate among the non-college group was 8% in 2017. By 2019, this rate had risen to 17%.
The 2022 version of the FDA’s Annual National Youth Tobacco Survey included the following statistics about vaping among adolescents and teens:
- More than 2.5 million middle and high school students (or about 9.4% of the population in this age range) said they had vaped in the previous 30 days.
- Among young people who vape, more than 25% said they do so every day.
- Almost 85% of young people who vape said they used flavored vape juice.
Vaping & Mental Health
The potential physical health risks of vaping include increased blood pressure, narrowing of the arteries, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and an elevated risk of heart attack and stroke. Some research suggests that vaping may also be a factor in the development of certain cancers. But what about vaping and mental health? Can vaping among young adults be a risk factor or a symptom of mental illness? Here’s what recent research has revealed:
Vaping & Anxiety
An article in the Feb. 2021 edition of the Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reported a link between vaping and anxiety disorders. This article also noted that vaping has also been associated with other mood disorders, suicidal thoughts, and overall negative mental health.
The author of this article, Scott B. Patten, MD, PhD, noted that smokers often view the use of vaping devices and traditional cigarettes as a way to alleviate stress. However, Dr. Patten wrote, this belief is contradicted by “compelling evidence” that smokers’ mental health improves once they stop smoking.
In the case of vaping and mental health, Dr. Patten reported that a clear cause-effect relationship has not yet been established. In other words, some young adults may turn to vaping in an attempt to manage existing mental health symptoms, while others may not develop these symptoms until after they have begun to vape.
Vaping & Depression
A 2019 study that was published by JAMA Network Open found “a significant cross-sectional association between e-cigarette use and depression.” This study, which involved more than 28,000 adults who vaped, also noted that increased frequency of vaping among current e-cigarette users was linked with a higher rate of self-reported depression.
The link between vaping and depression was also noted in a 2021 post by Dr. Namrata Walia on the Baylor College of Medicine blog. Dr. Walia, who is a postdoctoral research fellow in Baylor’s Department of Family and Community Medicine, noted that nicotine’s effects on the brain include increased sensitivity to stress and altered coping mechanisms. Thus, when a person tries to ease the symptoms of depression via vaping, the nicotine they ingest is likely to have the opposite effect and exacerbate their symptoms.
Vaping & Addiction
A discussion of the connection between vaping and mental health would not be complete without mentioning addiction. Don’t forget that substance use disorders (which is the clinical term for addiction) are mental health disorders.
A March 19, 2019, article on the Yale Medicine website reported that the risk of nicotine addiction is highest among vapers younger than age 25. Since the human brain is not fully developed until this age, younger vapers are more susceptible to nicotine’s effects.
Nicotine can negatively impact a person’s ability to focus, learn new information, and remember. If a high school or college student becomes addicted to nicotine through vaping, these effects could have a dramatic negative impact at this crucial point in their educational development.
“We may still see an epidemic of cognitive function problems and attention problems,” Marina Picciotto, PhD, said in the Yale article. “The changes made in the brain could persist.”
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