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Smoking and The Teenage Brain

March 04, 2021 Posted in: Lung Health

When it comes to teens and the dangers of smoking, there’s a lot more to consider than just the increased risk of emphysema and lung cancer later in life. Smoking leads to millions of premature deaths worldwide, and an increasing number of youth are experimenting and regularly smoking and vaping, thanks to the growing popularity of e-cigarettes. In one year alone, from 2018 to 2019, the number of middle and high school students using e-cigarettes increased from 3.6 to 5.4 million.  

Smoking has traditionally been the most socially acceptable drug, and there’s often a casual attitude around teenage experimentation as a normal part of growing up. But a teenager’s brain is not fully developed and is fundamentally different than an adult’s, making the introduction of nicotine even more dangerous during this critical developmental stage.

The prefrontal cortex – the area of the brain responsible for cognitive and impulse control – is much slower to develop than the other parts of the brain. Experts believe the maturation process continues until a person is 25 years old. Until their brain is mature, adolescents are more likely to take risks, be influenced by their peers, and be more motivated by rewards. Many teens believe they can smoke for a period of time and quit, but research suggests that’s not the case. A 2014 Surgeon General’s Report found that nearly 9 out of 10 adults smokers started before age 18, and nearly all by age 26. What’s more, a teen with a parent, sibling, or friend who smokes is much more likely to try smoking or vaping and become addicted themselves.

With the increasing volume of research around nicotine’s destructive effects, we know that it’s both psychoactive and addictive and can alter emotional and cognitive processes. Nicotine exposure to the brain during adolescence is even more damaging because of the potential and lasting consequences for person’s mental health and overall cognitive ability and can even alter their personality.  

I regularly encounter people facing serious medical issues that are directly related to smoking. The majority started in their teenage years and couldn’t stop. Adults who pick up smoking later in life, particularly after age 18, seem to more easily give up smoking when they are experiencing negative health consequences. The younger a person begins smoking, the more likely they are to become addicted and be unable to quit, even in the face of lung cancer.

Protect their lungs and their brains

Parents are increasingly worried about traumatic brain injuries associated with football, because there’s more information and greater awareness about the dangerous long-term consequences. Smoking and vaping should be considered with the same level of seriousness. The nicotine exposure that comes from increased use of e-cigarettes in teens many lead to changes that make the brain more sensitive to other drugs and increase the likelihood of future substance abuse. Statistics show that teens who smoke are more likely to use alcohol, marijuana and cocaine, as well as engage in other risky behaviors like fighting and unprotected sex.

In late 2019, the Food and Drug Administration officially raised the minimum age to purchase tobacco products from age 18 to 21, following 19 other states that have already done so. This includes cigarettes, electronic cigarettes and vaping products that contain nicotine. This crucial step in saving lives hasn’t come without much discussion between lawmakers and the public about whether it impedes on our civil liberties. The fact is that this change will save lives by putting more effective guard rails in place to help our youth make better decisions regarding their own health. Limiting nicotine exposure to later in life when the potential cognitive, functional and emotional consequences are less likely is key to managing this health crisis.

Now that these regulations are in place, the next step is to have early and ongoing conversations with your kids about how their choices to smoke or vape can and will impact their lives. Teens experimenting with smoking isn’t harmless in the way it was thought about in previous generations. Smoking or vaping can lead to more than a buzz – it can fundamentally change a person’s brain and make them vulnerable to anxiety disorders, alcoholism and drug addiction, as well as increase the risk for attention deficit disorders that negatively affect the ability to concentrate on school or work.  

Even though they may roll their eyes and scoff at these conversations, speaking the truth in clear and certain terms to your teens is your most effective tool in protecting their health.

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