Get Smart

Vaping may pose a health risk — but many Mass. teens don’t know that

In this April 2018 file photo, Marshfield High School Principal Robert Keuther displayed vaping devices that were confiscated from students in such places as restrooms or hallways at the school in Marshfield.
Steven Senne/Associated Press/file
In this April 2018 file photo, Marshfield High School Principal Robert Keuther displayed vaping devices that were confiscated from students in such places as restrooms or hallways at the school in Marshfield.

The Massachusetts Health Council, concerned about the uptick in vaping among teenagers, interviewed young people in four area communities to learn more about the trend — and found that many were unaware that the products could pose any health risks.

The new study included 32 middle- and high-school age students from Mattapan, Chelsea, Mashpee, and Waltham. A report on its findings was given to educators and health professionals Tuesday at a conference focused on drug use among teenagers. Among other findings, researchers discovered that many of the teens were unsure whether what they were smoking contained nicotine, said David Martin, executive director of the Massachusetts Health Council.

The subjects’ responses to a question about the safety of vaping included that it has “no side effects,” is “just water vapor,” and cannot cause harm to health, according to the study.


“These companies put nicotine in there to get you addicted,” Martin said. “One of the problems here is these products are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so they don’t have to list ingredients. There’s no one to force them to.”

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, e-cigarettes are not safe for youth and young adults. It also warns that the products are often not clearly labeled for nicotine content.

“It is difficult for consumers to know what e-cigarette products contain,” according to the CDC. “For example, some e-cigarettes marketed as containing zero percent nicotine have been found to contain nicotine.”

On Tuesday, the Health Council presented the study’s findings at a conference in Waltham titled “Our Kids and Drugs of Misuse” with health officials, schools, and parents from across the state. Martin said the conference would focus on vaping, marijuana, and opioids.

“While these new products are coming into the market that have nicotine, there’s also devices where you can vape THC,” Martin said, referring to the main active ingredient in marijuana.


“They can easily transition to vaping some form of THC. . . . It’s very dangerous for young people under the age of 21. The young brain is very susceptible to addiction. If you get addicted to nicotine at 16 or 17, you can get addicted to other things.”

Martin said the study also found that general awareness of vaping was lower in the focus groups drawn from Mattapan and Chelsea compared with the suburban students from Waltham and Mashpee.

In addition to understanding how teenagers think about vaping, the study was also aimed at creating a counteradvertising campaign to deter teens from using the products, Martin said.

Vaughan Rees, a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researcher and the director of the Center for Global Tobacco Control, said he analyzed the study and was concerned about the way it approached the issue.

In particular, Rees pointed to researchers asking teens in the focus groups about the presence of carcinogens in e-cigarettes.


“My concern was that there was a [question in the focus groups] related to carcinogens and we haven’t proven that, so it’s running the risks of communicating information to adolescents that hasn’t been confirmed by science,” he said.

Rees said he believes it’s important to focus on reducing the number of teenagers who vape, but he thinks there are more effective ways to dissuade them from using the products.

“[Teens are] also not really concerned about health risks that may not be a problem for 20 or 30 years,” Rees said. “We need to appeal to what is immediately relevant to them right now. Getting manipulated by a powerful industry is something that might resonate with them.”

But Martin said his goal with the study was to “be able to be honest with kids today” and disseminate information to those who work with the teens.

“We’re still trying to figure this out,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out what the evidence is. That’s why we do things like hold these conferences and hold focus groups.”

Laney Ruckstuhl can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @laneyruckstuhl.