The part of the brain that's responsible for decision making and impulse control is not yet fully developed during adolescence. Young people are more likely to take risks with their health and safety, including use of nicotine and other drugs. Youth and young adults are also uniquely at risk for long-term, long-lasting effects of exposing their developing brains to nicotine. These risks include nicotine addiction, mood disorders, and permanent lowering of impulse control. Nicotine also changes the way synapses are formed, which can harm the parts of the brain that control attention and learning.
How does the nicotine in e-cigarettes affect the brain? Until about age 25, the brain is still growing. Each time a new memory is created or a new skill is learned, stronger connections – or synapses – are built between brain cells. Young people's brains build synapses faster than adult brains. Because addiction is a form of learning, adolescents can get addicted more easily than adults. The nicotine in e-cigarettes and other tobacco products can also prime the adolescent brain for addiction to other drugs such as cocaine.
E-cigarette use among youth and young adults is strongly linked to the use of other tobacco products, such as regular cigarettes, cigars, hookah, and smokeless tobacco.
Some evidence suggests that e-cigarette use is linked to alcohol use and other substance use, such as marijuana. And certain e-cigarette products can be used to deliver other drugs like marijuana.
Some people have suggested that use of e-cigarettes by young people might "protect" them from using cigarettes. There is no evidence to support this claim. Some studies show that non-smoking youth who use e-cigarettes are more likely to try conventional cigarettes in the future than non-smoking youth who do not use e-cigarettes. And among high school students and young adults who use tobacco, more use both e-cigarettes and burned tobacco products than use e-cigarettes alone. Burned tobacco products like cigarettes are responsible for the overwhelming majority of tobacco-related deaths and disease in the United States.
The aerosol from e-cigarettes is not harmless. It can contain harmful and potentially harmful chemicals, including nicotine; ultrafine particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs; flavoring such diacetyl, a chemical linked to a serious lung disease; volatile organic compounds such as benzene, which is found in car exhaust; and heavy metals, such as nickel, tin, and lead. Scientists are still working to understand more fully the health effects and harmful doses of e-cigarette contents when they are heated and turned into an aerosol, both for active users who inhale from a device and for those who are exposed to the aerosol secondhand. Another risk to consider involves defective e-cigarette batteries that have been known to cause fires and explosions, some of which have resulted in serious injuries. Most of the explosions happened when the e-cigarette batteries were being charged.
Nicotine exposure during adolescence, a critical period for brain development, can cause addiction and can harm the developing brain. This video underscores the health risks for teens.