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The Wrong Message: What Teens Believe About Substance Abuse

teen talking about treatmentPerception is everything for a teenager. You can produce all the scientific evidence in the world to prove that grass is green – and then show them green grass – but if they have decided that grass is purple because they heard it from a source that they have deemed to be more reputable than you, good luck getting them to see the truth. It’s the same with the perception of harm when it comes to drugs and alcohol. Current events and changes in legislation plus the introduction of new products have been sending kids mixed messages about what’s safe and what isn’t.

Cigarettes

If there’s one things that most teens can agree on, it’s that tobacco cigarettes are bad for your health. Kids who took part in a focus group clearly understood the dangers associated with cigarette smoking – but when the topic shifted to cigarettes that contained marijuana or using nicotine in the form of an e-cigarette, that’s when their perception of harm got a little hazy, according to the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Permissive Environment

Part of the reason for this view among teens – that marijuana use or use of e-cigarettes may be harmless – could be the messages they are getting – and not getting – from adults. Maria Roditis is lead author of the study, and a researcher at the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco. She said: “The most striking finding from this study was how little information adolescents were getting regarding risks related to marijuana and e-cigarettes. The youth we talked with actually mentioned the fact that they would see commercials talking about risks related to cigarettes, but there was nothing about marijuana or e-cigarettes.” What they do see instead is increasing legislation legalizing the use of marijuana not only for medical use but for recreational use as well. They also see more and more people “vaping,” or using e-cigarettes and the “cloud competitions” that many teens who use the new appliances take part in via YouTube video and Facebook uploads.

Benefit vs. Risk

The teen focus groups were asked to list the benefits of use of a certain substance (e.g., tobacco cigarettes, marijuana, e-cigarettes, etc.) and then were asked to list the risks associated with use of that substance. When it came to tobacco cigarettes, the participants listed a number of negative associations (e.g., stained fingers and teeth, lung cancer, bad breath, etc.) with the only potential positive association being an aid in relaxation. When marijuana was brought up, the conversation flip-flopped: teen participants came up with a number of perceived benefits (e.g., pain relief, stress relief, relaxation, the high it causes, etc.) and few risks other than getting into trouble if it were illegal or experiencing accidents or other negative events while under the influence. On the subject of e-cigarettes, teens seemed to be confused. They were unsure whether or not they even contained nicotine or if they could harm the user. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher is senior author of the study and a faculty member with the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco. She said: “The fact that they are seeing messaging about risks related to cigarettes means that they may wrongly infer that cigarettes carry harm but that these other products that are not being discussed do not confer risks.”

Are Adults Confused as Well?

It may be that adults are just as unsure about what is correct in terms of the harms associated with the use of marijuana and e-cigarettes as teens. There are a lot of misconceptions floating around out there and very little in the way of authoritative facts and information. Patricia Folan is the director of the Center for Tobacco Control at North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck, NY. She says: “The impact of these products on lung health is not as well known, or what is known is not as widely publicized. Perhaps the legalization in many states has contributed to the perception that smoking marijuana is safer than conventional cigarettes.” Additionally, when it comes to the use of e-cigarettes, Folan said: “The knowledge gap about e-cigarettes is currently being filled in large part by the e-cigarette industry advertising rather than scientific information. There is much variability in e-cigarettes, and more data are needed to demonstrate whether or not they are safe and/or effective in helping people quit smoking. One of the concerns surrounding e-cigarettes is the possibility of re-normalizing smoking in society.”

The Risk Is Real

Whether or not the word is getting out as effectively as it should, it is clear that there are serious risks associated with regular use of marijuana. Folan includes the following among those dangers:
  • Double the chance of experiencing psychosis
  • Decreased academic progress
  • Increased chance of developing chronic bronchitis
  • Increased risk of car accident while under the influence
When it comes to e-cigarettes, Folan is just as concerned about the potential health risks for teens: “There is much variability in e-cigarettes, and more data are needed to demonstrate whether or not they are safe and/or effective in helping people quit smoking. One of the concerns surrounding e-cigarettes is the possibility of re-normalizing smoking in society.” Roditis and Halpern-Felsher are equally concerned, pointing out that nicotine may negatively impact heart health and the developing brain of the teen user. Says Roditis: “There is concern that the flavorants in e-cigarettes that make them so attractive to youth are harmful, especially to the lungs and respiratory system. There is also concern that adolescents may use e-cigarettes as a bridge to start smoking conventional cigarettes.”

Take a Stand

Parents are encouraged to include marijuana and e-cigarette usage on the list of things for which there is a zero-tolerance policy for their children – and to talk to their teens about the potential risks. While some schools and states are working to ban e-cigarette usage for teens, it’s better to take a stand now than to be sorry later.

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