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

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

If you’re a parent, here’s what you need to know about e-cigarettes:

How e-cigarettes work

E-cigarettes make an aerosol by heating a liquid into a vapor that can be inhaled by the user (“vaping”). That liquid can contain anything, theoretically. The most common liquids used contain nicotine, along with flavoring and other chemicals. One common brand of e-cigarette, called JUUL, contains as much nicotine as a pack of regular cigarettes in just one of its “pods.”

E-cigarettes also contain chemicals and heavy metals that are linked to cancer and other serious health problems. Because it’s hard to know every ingredient in the vapor, it’s hard to know all the possible health effects. And some of them, like cancer, may not appear until years after use.

The devices can also be used to inhale marijuana and other drugs. Most (but not all) of the cases of lung injury involved using e-cigarettes containing marijuana products, such as THC.

While there had been some hope that these devices might help people quit smoking, experts dispute this. More worrisome is the fact that they are actively marketed to youth, and many have flavors such as bubble gum or chocolate that appeal to youth.

Why e-cigarettes are especially dangerous for young people

Along with the risk of lung injury and other health problems, e-cigarettes are particularly dangerous for teens and young adults because:

  • Nicotine is highly addictive. Using e-cigarettes can set young people up for a life of addiction, and increases the risk that they will start smoking cigarettes.
  • Nicotine can have serious effects on the developing brain. It can harm the parts of the brain that control attention, learning, mood, and impulse control. These effects can be lifelong.

What parents need to do

  • Set a good example. Don’t use e-cigarettes or tobacco products yourself.
  • Talk to your child about e-cigarettes. Find out what they know, whether they have tried them, and whether their friends use them. Make sure they know the facts about e-cigarettes and the dangers of using them.
  • Make sure that your child knows the symptoms of lung injury from e-cigarette use, so that they can get help for themself or friends. The main symptoms are cough, shortness of breath, or chest pain. Some people also have nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomachache, fever, or fatigue.
  • If necessary, help your child talk to their doctor about the best way to quit.
  • Advocate! Talk to your elected officials about better laws to protect our children. Talk to your school and community about education and outreach.

The “Talk with Your Teen About E-cigarettes” tip sheet is a great resource to help with these conversations. Get started now. There is no time to lose.


  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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