Smoking, Vaping, or Chewing – What do they have in common?

Nicotine is the chemical found in tobacco products that is responsible for addiction. When tobacco products are used, nicotine is quickly absorbed into the body and goes directly to the brain. Nicotine activates areas of the brain that make in individual feel happy and satisfied, making the substance highly addictive and dangerous – especially to a teen’s developing brain.

Nicotine Addiction

Nicotine addiction may look different from person to person. Even if only used occasional, an individual can become addicted and struggle to quit because nicotine changes the way the brain works. Many teens underestimate how easy it is to become addicted to nicotine. Teens are the most at risk for nicotine addiction because their brains are still developing. The younger a person is when they start using tobacco, the more likely they are to become addicted.

Signs of Nicotine Addiction:

  • Cravings or intense feelings to use tobacco products
  • Going out of the way to get tobacco
  • Continuing to use tobacco because stopping is challenging
  • Continuing to use tobacco despite health problems, like difficulty breathing
  • Giving up social activities because you can’t use tobacco in those situations
  • Feeling anxious or irritable if you want to use tobacco but can’t
  • You have to use tobacco within minutes of waking up

When an individual is addicted to nicotine, they may experience symptoms of nicotine withdrawal when they stop using tobacco, such as intense cravings, feeling down or irritable, or having trouble sleeping. These symptoms tend to be the strongest within the first week after quitting, but they are only temporary and lessen with time.

current tobacco use teens

The Dangers of Nicotine

Nicotine addiction is dangerous because it increases the risk that a person can be a lifelong tobacco user. Long-term exposure to the harmful chemicals in tobacco products leads to many chronic health problems, including heart disease, lung disease, and numerous cancers.

Teens are more vulnerable to nicotine’s addictive effects because their brains continue to develop until the age of 25. Nicotine changes their brain in the parts responsible for attention, learning, and memory, worsening concentration, learning and impulse control. Nicotine-induced changes to the brain while it is still developing can not only lead to permanent effects on one’s ability to make decisions, but also increase one’s risk of becoming addicted to other substances.


Tobacco is a plant grown for its leaves, which are dried and used to create tobacco products. While nicotine is what addicts people to using tobacco products, it is not what makes tobacco use so harmful. Tobacco and tobacco smoke contain thousands of chemicals- including tar, carbon monoxide, lead, and arsenic- that cause serious harm to the body. Tobacco smoke also harms non-smokers as they are exposed to smoke in public and social settings. Secondhand exposure to tobacco smoke carries all the same risks as firsthand smoke. Anytime you can smell tobacco smoke you are being exposed to all the same chemicals as the smoker.

Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of disease, disability, and death in the United States.

Cigarettes cause more than 480,000 premature deaths in the United States each year – from smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). This represents about 1,300 deaths every day. In addition, for every one person who dies from smoking, 30 more suffer from at least one serious tobacco-related illness.

You may think that you can use tobacco without becoming addicted. But the truth is, most teens who use tobacco will get hooked. Three out of four teens who smoke cigarettes in high school will still be smoking as adults.


Tobacco Products

teen smoking, nicotine

Smoked Tobacco Products

  • CigarettesThese are labeled as regular, light, or menthol, but no evidence exists that light or menthol cigarettes are safer than regular cigarettes.
  • CigarsCigars are often much larger than cigarettes, containing anywhere from 3 to 14 times the amount of tobacco. Also, cigars are wrapped in a tobacco leaf (whereas cigarettes are wrapped in a non-tobacco paper) which adds to the amount of tobacco being consumed.
  • Hookahs or water pipes: Hookah tobacco comes in many flavors, and the pipe is typically passed around in groups. A  typical hookah session delivers approximately 125 times the smoke, 25 times the tar, 2.5 times the nicotine, and 10 times the carbon monoxide as smoking a cigarette.
teen chewing tobacco

Smokeless Tobacco Products

  • Chewing tobacco: It is typically placed between the cheek and gums.
  • Snuff: Ground tobacco that can be sniffed if dried or placed between the cheek and gums.
  • Dip: Moist snuff that is used like chewing tobacco.
  • Snus: A small pouch of moist snuff.
  • Dissolvable productsThese include lozenges, orbs, sticks, and strips.
teen vaping, e-cigarettes


  • Also called e-cigarettes, electronic nicotine delivery systems, vaping devices, e-cigs, or JUULing
  • Vaping products are battery-operated devices that deliver nicotine and flavorings without burning tobacco.
  • In most products, puffing activates the battery-powered heating device, which vaporizes the liquid in the cartridge. The resulting vapor is then inhaled (called “vaping”).

Dangers of Tobacco Use

  • Loss of sense of smell and taste. In addition to impaired senses, smoking leads to chronic bad breath.
  • Aging skin and teeth. Smoking and use of tobacco products in general leads to premature aging of skin and teeth discoloration.
  • Risk to unborn baby. Pregnant women who smoke are at increased risk for premature birth, having smaller babies, or suffering a miscarriage, stillbirth, or experiencing other problems during pregnancy. Smoking by pregnant women also may be associated with learning and behavior problems in children.
  • Fire-related deaths. Smoking is the leading cause of fire-related deaths—more than 600 deaths each year. In many cases this is caused by people falling asleep with a lit cigarette, causing a house fire.
  • Cancers. Cigarette smoking is the cause of one-third of all cancer deaths, including 90% of lung cancer cases. Tobacco use is also linked with cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, cervix, kidney, ureter, bladder, and bone marrow (leukemia).
  • Lung Problems. Bronchitis (swelling of the air passages to the lungs), emphysema, and pneumonia have all been linked to smoking.
  • Heart disease and stroke. Smoking increases the risk for stroke, heart attack, and other diseases of the heart and circulation system which may lead to death.
  • Cataracts. People who smoke are more likely to get cataracts, which is clouding of the eye that causes blurred vision.


The increase in teen vaping over the past few years is cause for major concern. In fact, 1.5 million more middle and high school students used e-cigarettes (vapes) in 2018 than in 2017.

Vaping products are designed to deliver nicotine without the other chemicals produced by burning tobacco leaves. Puffing on the mouthpiece of the cartridge activates a battery-powered inhalation device (called a vaporizer). The vaporizer heats the liquid inside the cartridge which contains nicotine, flavors, and other chemicals. The heated liquid turns into an aerosol (vapor) which the user inhales—referred to as “vaping.”

teen reasons for vaping, e-cigarettes

The perception is that vaping is the safer alternative to smoking tobacco cigarettes, but because most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, these products are just as addicting as smoked and smokeless tobacco products. Also, because e-cigarettes are fairly new to the market, scientists and health experts are still learning about the long-term effects these products have on people’s health.

Here’s what we do know about the risks of vaping:

  • Studies have confirmed e-cigarette manufacturers commonly mislabel their products as e-cigarettes marketed as nicotine-free were found to contain nicotine.
  • Some research suggests that vaping may serve as a “gateway” for teens to try other tobacco products, including cigarettes. A study showed that students who started vaping by 9th grade were at an increased risk to start smoking cigarettes and other smoked tobacco products within the next year.
  • Defective e-cigaretttes have caused fires and explosions, some of which have resulted in serious injuries.
  • Research suggests that e-cigarette vapor contains harmful chemicals, like dactyl (a chemical linked to a serious lung disease) and heavy metals such as nickel, tin and lead.

Talking to Your Kids

Parents face a tough dilemma about substance use: we may want our children to abstain from alcohol and drug use but what do we do if they are not? Besides the effects of substance use on the developing brain, teens using substances may face very serious consequences.

Signs of Teen Drug or Alcohol Use

Figuring out if your child is using drugs or alcohol may pose a challenge. Many of the very early signs and symptoms could just be typical teen or young adult behavior. Many may also be signs of mental health issues, including depression or anxiety.

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