WEDNESDAY, March 1, 2023 (HealthDay News) — For decades, people have turned to cigarettes in times of stress. Now, a preliminary study suggests that young people are using vaping in the same way.
The study, of nearly 2,000 US teens and young adults, found that those who vaped nicotine or marijuana were more likely to report anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts. In fact, most vapers said they had suffered symptoms of anxiety or depression in the past week, while more than half had thought about suicide in the past year.
The findings leave the chicken and the egg question open.
“One of the challenges is figuring out cause and effect,” said Loren Wold, professor in the Colleges of Nursing and Medicine at Ohio State University.
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Many of the young people surveyed explicitly said they started smoking to cope with their depression – including a third of those who smoked pot.
This is troubling, Wold said, as no one would consider vaping a healthy coping strategy.
Wold, who was not involved in the study, was the lead author of a recent American Heart Association (AHA) report on the physical health consequences of vaping in adolescence.
There’s still a lot to learn, as vaping is a relatively new phenomenon, Wold said. But it’s clear that there are short-term effects, including inflammation in the airways, spikes in blood pressure and increased stiffness in the arteries.
So young people who vape may be “setting themselves up for heart and lung disease,” Wold said.
What’s “intriguing” about the new findings, he said, is that they link vaping with mental health.
The research will be presented at an AHA meeting in Boston. Studies released at meetings are generally considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
But the results are the latest in a line of work that raises concerns about the vaping “epidemic” among young Americans.
In 2022, more than 2.5 million American children reported vaping, according to the non-profit campaign for tobacco-free kids. And many weren’t just trying it out: Nearly half of high school seniors who vaped said they did it most days.
Vaporizing devices work by heating a liquid that produces a “vapor”, allowing users to inhale nicotine or THC (the active ingredient in marijuana). But while vaping doesn’t involve smoke, it’s not benign.
Children are still becoming addicted to nicotine and are being hit by the harms of this drug (or THC), which can include effects on brain development. What’s more, Wold said, the liquids in vaping devices don’t produce — contrary to popular belief — “harmless water vapour.”
When heated, these liquids actually produce more than 1,000 chemicals, he said. Whether these exposures can directly affect children’s mental health remains to be seen.
The new findings are based on an online survey of 1,921 teenagers and young adults, ages 13 to 24. Most said they had vaped in the past month, including 830 who said they had vaped nicotine and THC.
Overall, 70% of THC-only vapers said they had anxiety issues in the past week, as did over 60% of those who vaped nicotine or both drugs. This compared to about 40% of participants who never vaped.
Meanwhile, more than half of all vapers struggled with symptoms of depression in the past week, versus a quarter of non-vapers. Some — 20% to a third — said depression drove them to try vaping.
It’s unclear why they thought this might help, but Wold said he suspects the industry’s marketing is partly to blame: Children are regularly exposed to vaping images and messages on social media, in ways that portray them as “cool” or a way to enjoy life. .
Dr. Rose Marie Robertson, deputy chief of science and medicine at the AHA, is the study’s senior investigator.
She pointed to the “big picture” – the fact that children today are distressed by many things, from violence to division in civil discourse. And they need help dealing with it so they don’t turn to substances, she said.
When it comes to vaping itself, Robertson said the issue needs to be addressed from multiple angles. One is regulation.
“We advocate for public policies that we have the data to demonstrate will help stop kids from starting to smoke — things like eliminating flavored tobacco products,” Robertson said. “Flavors are a big part of why many kids start vaping.”
In cases where children are already smoking, schools can step in to offer help in quitting. Unfortunately, Robertson said, many schools lack resources.
Instead, she noted, students caught smoking are often suspended from school — which can only make matters worse.
As for parents, Wold said it’s important they talk to their kids about the dangers of vaping. And if their child is already smoking, he added, it’s an opportunity to ask why — and possibly find out they’re dealing with mental health issues.
The tobacco-free kids campaign has more on vaping.
SOURCES: Rose Marie Robertson, MD, deputy chief science and chief medical officer, American Heart Association, Dallas; Loren E. Wold, PhD, professor and assistant dean, biological health research, College of Nursing and professor of physiology and cell biology, College of Medicine, Ohio State University, Columbus; presentation, February 28, 2023, American Heart Association Epidemiology, Prevention, Lifestyle, and Cardiometabolic Health Scientific Sessions, Boston