What parents need to know — and do — about e-cigarettes

Claire McCarthy, MD

Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Editor’s note

The FDA is investigating reports of seizures occurring following the use of e-cigarettes. Most people affected have been adolescents and young adults. Some of the reports involved other substances (marijuana, amphetamines) or people who had previously had seizures.


Here’s why parents need to know about e-cigarettes. First, many more teens are using them. In 2017, 3% of middle school students and 12% of high school students reported using them, and while that may not sound like a lot, since 2011 use has gone up about 500% in middle school and 800% among high school students. And, e-cigarettes can be dangerous.

How e-cigarettes work

E-cigarettes are basically delivery devices for nicotine, the addictive chemical in tobacco. The hope of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is that they might possibly decrease smoking — which would be great, as smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States. It’s the smoke itself that causes the vast majority of the health risk, so the idea was that perhaps if you gave people a way to inhale nicotine that didn’t involve burning tobacco, you might get them away from tobacco, especially if you were able to gradually decrease the amount of nicotine they inhale.

The problem is that not only did it turn out that these devices don’t really help people quit, they are being marketed to youth, and youth are buying them.

Why e-cigarettes are especially dangerous for young people

This is where the danger comes in. E-cigarettes are dangerous for youth in at least three ways:

This is a big enough concern that the FDA is launching an effort to curb e-cigarette use in youth. They have targeted the major manufacturers (JUUL, Vuse, blu E-Cig, MarkTen, Logic) and are not only examining their marketing practices, but asking them to come up with “robust” plans to curb youth use of their products. They are also looking at other ways to curb use, including education and regulation. Many states have laws regulating the sale of e-cigarettes to youth, and others are considering them.

Here’s what parents need to do

  • Get educated. Learn about e-cigarettes and their health risks.
  • Talk to your kids about them. Ask about what they know, ask if they have tried them, ask if their friends have tried them. Ask if they see others using them at school. Make sure they understand the dangers.
  • Advocate! Talk to your elected officials about better laws to protect our children. Talk to your school and community about education and outreach.

All of us need to take action, before the danger gets any worse.


  1. VJ

    As an adult who spent 10+ years smoking cigarettes, I must say that I am very glad I made the switch to e-cigs. I am concerned about the youth, but for me, a former smoker, it has made a world of difference.

  2. Eunice

    Actually talking to kids really does not get kids to not use tobacco products, the tobacco companies have tons of data on this phenomenon. Talking to kids makes rebellious kids want to use tobacco products more. What parents and older siblings can do is model good behavior by not using tobacco products. Kids want to be just like the older adults around them. So if there strong anti-tobacco policy in the home, it will stick. Train up your child in the way that they should go.

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