Q: I found a vaping pen hidden in my 13-year-old son's room and am at a loss as to how to deal with it. He is very susceptible to peer pressure and wants very badly to fit in with the "cool" kids. Any suggestions would be appreciated.
A: This is one of those occasional questions that no matter how I answer, some group of people buys pitchforks and torches and tries to find my house.
At the risk of being pilloried anyway, I will share some objective facts, starting with although there has been plenty of speculation, medical science has yet to find any specific long-term health risk reliably associated with vaping other than the obvious: nicotine addiction. Undoubtedly, some folks are apoplectic already because they think nicotine causes various cancers, most notably lung cancer, but—and again, this is a fact—smoking tobacco is bad because tobacco tars become carcinogenic when burned and inhaled. Nicotine does not cause lung cancer.
Nicotine is an addictive drug (but the strength of its addictive effect varies from person to person). However, if one removes tobacco from the equation, garden-variety nicotine addiction is not reliably associated with any specific health or behavioral risk. Nicotine addicts are not known, as a group, to rob convenience stores or snatch elderly women’s purses to feed their habit. Drive-by shootings are not associated with nicotine addiction. There’s no South American nicotine cartel. As addictions go, it’s relatively benign. However, and hopefully needless to say, no addiction is a good thing, and it is possible to overdose on nicotine, so please hold off on the pitchforks and torches for now.
Third, valid, replicated, peer-reviewed research has discovered that nicotine has positive effects on cognitive functioning and appears to be a “brain vitamin” of sorts. For example, nicotine use is associated with lower rates of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other forms of neurological degeneration.
Perhaps the most immediately worrisome thing about e-cigarettes is they’ve been known to set clothing on fire and even explode. As with anything else, the cheaper the e-cig, the more likely it is to malfunction. Needless to say, your son is probably using a fairly inexpensive unit.
By no means am I dismissing your concerns. I’m simply saying that if you do all you can to stop your son from using e-cigs and he figures out how to get around your prohibition, the world isn’t coming to an end. After all, he could have fallen in with a peer group that self-medicates with alcohol, marijuana, or other illicit and even prescription drugs. If you don’t see an alarming change in his mood or behavior, then he’s not likely to be doing anything but nicotine.
When it comes to teens, parents do well to accept that the limits of their influence have waned and trust that the discipline they’ve provided to that point is going to effectively deter anti-social and self-destructive behavior. Some experimentation is likely during the teen years—especially with boys. In many if not most cases, the experimentation goes no further than that: experimentation.
Above all else, you want to approach this issue dispassionately. You can and should confiscate your son’s smoking equipment and let him know that until all the facts are in concerning e-cigs, you would be irresponsible to allow him to vape. Let him know that there will be consequences if you find another e-cig in his possession. Try to discover if the peer group in question is doing anything riskier than vaping. If they are, then you should do what you can to limit contact, knowing however that attempting to prohibit teenage relationships carries its own risks.
As your question illustrates, sometimes the only thing a parent can do in the face of a problem is to stay calm and continue to be “user-friendly,” as in always loving and always approachable.