Jessamin Cipollina, MA
February 21, 2019
February is National Children’s Dental Health Month, a great opportunity to promote the importance of children’s dental resources and raise awareness about good oral health practices for tiny teeth. Although pediatric dental health often focuses on younger children, oral health education and resources for teens are often overlooked because this group, on the cusp of adulthood, is expected to maintain good oral health care developed in early childhood. However, with adolescence comes many personal health and social changes that parents and practitioners alike should be aware of in assessing teen oral health risk behaviors.
A major public health concern across the U.S. is the high rate of teens who smoke electronic cigarettes. Originally marketed for those looking to quit smoking tobacco, nicotine vaporizers and e-cigarettes are replacing traditional cigarettes. As a result, teens are largely misinformed about the oral and overall health risks of vaping, which is now viewed as an overall “healthier” alternative to smoking tobacco by teens and the general public. This group is widely influenced by myths and advertising for e-cigs and vapes, and there is a need for greater awareness and education on the health risks of vaping in this group.
There are a variety of factors that contribute to poor oral health in teens, and many oral health risk factors are directly linked to complications with overall health. The American Dental Association (ADA) discusses the oral health risks of smoking and ingesting tobacco products, including gum disease and oral cancer, but they neglect to include the oral health risks of smoking e-cigarettes and non-tobacco products.3 Many anti-smoking campaigns and smoking education for teens focus on tobacco-related health problems, but the recent surge of non-tobacco smoking products and the health risks associated with nicotine and other chemicals makes a compelling case for addressing these issues.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the vaping epidemic affects teens as early as 8th grade and throughout high school. Various reports show that junior and senior high school students are twice as likely to use e-cigarettes as traditional cigarettes, yet roughly a third of these teens will start smoking tobacco products within 6 months. Although e-cigs and vaporizers are indeed tobacco-free, this does not mean that the effects of nicotine are any less brutal. It is still a highly addictive chemical that is known to cause cancer and increase risk for a range of health problems, namely heart disease and cancer of the lungs, pancreas, gastrointestinal system and breasts.3 Nicotine and other chemicals in vapes and e-cigs are especially bad for teeth and gums; frequent vaping means high amounts of nicotine in your bloodstream that reduces blood flow and saliva production and can increase muscle tension, particularly in teeth and gums. All of this can lead to painful gum disease and tooth decay, not to mention teeth grinding and persistent bad breath.
Due to early marketing of e-cigarettes as an option for those looking to quit smoking tobacco, many people falsely view e-cigs as a healthier alternative to cigarettes. This leads to drastic misinformation absorbed by teens that is proven to be just as poisonous as vaping. High school students are especially vulnerable to these mixed messages, with 30-50% of them exposed to ads for vaping and e-cigs through all forms of advertising including retail, internet, TV and magazine ads. This pervasive promotion of the products demonstrates an urgent need for oral health literacy tools to educate adolescent youth about the severe negative impact that these products can have on oral and overall health.
Adolescence is known to be a tumultuous period in a person’s life. Expectations to perform well in school and extracurricular activities are high, along with impending pressure about life after high school and making important decisions about the future. During this time, teens are learning how to balance multiple responsibilities while also staying happy and healthy. Many teens seek out ways to combat these new stressors and, unfortunately, smoking is and always has been promoted as a great stress reliever. Smoking e-cigarettes is often seen as a safer alternative to smoking and/or ingesting tobacco products, but there are many serious oral health problems that can result from long-term and frequent vaping. In 2018, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) revised its current anti-smoking campaign The Real Cost to include the destructive effects of e-cigarettes and to raise awareness about the epidemic of vaping in schools.5 Continuing to market e-cigarettes as a “safer” alternative will cause irreparable harm to today’s teens and future adolescents, making the need for oral health education regarding e-cigarettes especially important. As health professionals, we need to act now to educate our teens about the perils of e-cigarettes and vaping!
- Allen B. E-Cigarettes: Vaping and dental health. Delta Dental. Published on June 5, 2018.
- Mouth Healthy. Smoking and Tobacco. American Dental Assocation. Published 2019.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. Teens and e-cigarettes. National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Updated February 2016.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The Real Cost Campaign. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Updated February 5, 2019.
- Waitt T. Vaping and oral health: It’s worse than you think. American Security Today. Published on January 28, 2019.