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Laura Dern Is Asking You (Nicely) to Quit Vaping

Laura Dern

American Lung Association

Key Takeaways

  • Laura Dern is the ambassador of the American Lung Association’s Vape-Free Schools Initiative to raise awareness for the risks of vaping and e-cigarettes.
  • In 2018, the U.S. Surgeon General declared vaping and e-cigarette use an epidemic among youth.
  • Tech-forward designs and artificial flavorings make e-cigarettes particularly enticing, and harmful, for teens.

Growing up in the movie industry, Laura Dern watched friends and family battle nicotine addiction from a young age.

“Crews famously were cigarette smokers,” Dern, whose parents were actors before she made her debut in 1980, tells Verywell. “It was very common as I was growing up on movie sets.”

When Dern was 6 years old, she lost her grandfather—an avid smoker—to lung cancer. In the years that followed, she watched other loved ones fight addiction.

Now a mother of two teenagers, Dern sees nicotine addiction in a new form—vape and e-cigarette use among school-aged children—and is working with the American Lung Association (ALA) to raise awareness of vaping risks.

The Oscar-winning actress first joined ALA’s “Lung Force” Initiative in 2015. She is now a voice in the association’s Vape-Free School’s Initiative, an effort to provide guidance, education, and cessation resources on vaping for school aged children. While she educates others, Dern is learning herself.

“I’ve learned so much from them in terms of lung health,” Dern says of both ALA and her two children, Jaya Harper and Ellery Harper, who engage with her on the topic.

Dern adds she was initially vulnerable to claims touted by vaping companies, some of whom marketed the product as a healthy alternative to cigarettes and an effective tool for smoking cessation. Some of her colleagues leaned on vapes and e-cigarettes to replace smoking addictions or told their children that vaping was OK. 

“We were all learning together, at the same time, just how dangerous—not only the level of nicotine and what nicotine does to the developing adolescent brain, but also all the chemicals and heavy metals in the devices themselves were doing to the human body,” she says.

E-cigarette Epidemic Among Youth

E-cigarettes, which include products like e-hookahs, mods, and vape pens entered the U.S. marketplace around 2006. They quickly gained popularity among teens and prompted the U.S. Surgeon General to declare e-cigarette use an epidemic among youth in 2018. 

In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 3.6 million U.S. youth were using e-cigarettes.

S. Christy Sadreameli, MD, MHS, a pediatric pulmonologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital and national spokesperson for ALA, tells Verywell that the toxic ingredients and addictive qualities in vapes and e-cigarettes are dangerous.

Vapes and e-cigarettes contain ingredients like aerosols, heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, ultrafine particles, and flavorings, which can be harmful to the body and impact lung health. While vapes don’t carry smoke and tobacco like a traditional cigarette, they can contribute to heart and lung inflammation, Sadreameli says.

Sometimes, people assume that vapes cannot harm their lungs, she adds.

“The most common misconception of vaping being less harmful is it’s just water vapor, and nicotine, and or flavor. It’s really not true,” Sadreameli says. 

Nicotine is a highly addictive substance that can increase risks of cardiovascular, respiratory, and gastrointestinal disorders.JUUL, a popular e-cigarettes brand among teens and young adults, produces pods that can each hold as much nicotine as a pack of 20 regular cigarettes.

Creative advertising has also influenced vaping’s popularity among teens, Sadreameli says.

Many vapes use artificial flavors to enhance taste. Some of these flavors contain diacetyl, an e-liquid food additive that is linked to health risks like inflammation, permanent scarring of the airways, and popcorn lung. In 2020, more than 82% of high schoolers who used e-cigarettes used a flavored version, according to the CDC.

Researchers do not have data on the vast majority of vape flavorings, but inhaling an under researched ingredient is never a good idea, Sadreamili says.

“They're put in there for their taste, not for any knowledge that they're safe for the lungs,” she adds. “It's not harmless.”

Peer pressure and tech-forward designs, like a vape’s USB-like appearance, likewise play a role in their widespread use, Sadreameli says.

For adults trying to quit a cigarette addiction, e-cigarettes may reduce their health risks, according to the Surgeon General. But for adolescents, the use of e-cigarette products could increase the risk of addiction and future cigarette smoking.

Educating Teens About The Risks of Vaping

ALA’s Vape-Free Schools Initiative focuses on education, rather than discipline. This distinction is incredibly important because struggling with an addiction is a health problem and a natural response to pandemic-induced anxiety, Sadreameli says.

“Stress and peer pressure are universal motivators for vaping, and this has been a very stressful past year and a half,” Sadreameli adds.

The pandemic has been shown to affect people’s physical and mental health and increase substance dependencies, according to the American Psychological Association.

The Vape-Free Schools Initiative is available to schools once they complete two programs.

One is a free alternative to suspension training called IN-DEPTH, which is a four-part series about nicotine dependence and alternatives to addiction. The other is a training called NOT on Tobacco (N-O-T), which is a course that uses strategies like social cognitive theory of behavior change to help teens sustain abstinence. 

“The point of this is to teach schools and educators what to do,” Sadreameli says. “It's not meant to be punitive, it's meant to help.”

Schools can also apply for a scholarship to join the Vape-Free Schools Initiative or donate funds

How to Talk to a Loved One About Vaping

As an actress and as a mom, Dern says it’s important to talk to people about vaping from a place of compassion.

When asked how she would approach Kate Winslet’s heavy vaping in the recent series, Mare of Easttown, Dern says that regardless of whether someone is going through an addiction in real life or reflecting it on film, we are all subjects of the human experience. 

“Whether it's a character she plays or Kate herself, vaping is a nicotine addiction and it's a reality,” Dern says.

“With broken, complicated characters in films and television, if they're struggling and we see the device in their hands that they think is helping them manage it, we hopefully can have enough awareness around to see that that's a reflection of how easy it is for all of us to lean on that vice—whatever it may be."

What This Means For You

If you or a loved one is struggling with a vaping addiction, The American Lung Association provides education on vaping risks and resources on how to quit. If you are a teacher or an administrator, you can sign up to join ALA’s Vape-Free Schools Initiative here.

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