Originally published in the spring 2019 issue of Your Court, the official magazine of USA Volleyball.

Everyone knows that smoking cigarettes is bad. It’s so bad that tobacco companies aren’t allowed to advertise on TV, and ads in magazines must include words of warning that are pretty gross. It’s also undisputed that smoking’s not good for your health and it’s awful for competitive athletes.

But there’s another temptation that came on the scene about a decade ago, and it’s attracting the attention of kids and teens — electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigs or vaping. While vaping has been marketed as a safer alternative than cigarette smoking, this is the furthest thing from the truth!

“Vaping is associated with respiratory problems and cardiovascular disease,” says Dr. Linda Richter, director of policy research and analysis for the Center on Addiction. “Because vaping products are not well regulated by the government, their contents are not standardized or monitored, so people who use them may not know what exactly they are inhaling."

“Most importantly, nearly all vaping products contain nicotine, a highly addictive substance that increases the heart rate, causes respiratory or lung damage, can lead to acid reflux and can have a negative effect on reproductive organs,” Richter adds.

Additional impacts of vaping and e-cigarettes on the human body can include:

  • Vaping during adolescence can disrupt brain growth and cause nicotine addiction.
  • Rapid increases in nicotine can increase heart rate, raise blood pressure and narrow arteries around the heart.
  • Flavorants are created using chemicals, such as diacetyl, a chemical linked to serious lung disease.
  • Secondhand vapor exposes those around you to harmful chemicals.

According to Richter, for years, the vaping industry and even people in the medical and public health communities promoted vaping as a safe alternative to cigarette smoking. That image of e-cigarettes as being relatively harmless has stuck – even though it’s not accurate. Nearly all vaping products come in a variety of flavors, which enhances their appeal and decreases the stigma. Vaping devices can look like flash drives or pens. Since the products are relatively discreet and don’t give off the offensive odors of cigarettes, it’s easier to conceal use. But Richter says athletes must be hypervigilant to avoid vaping because it can interfere with training and performance, and cause long-term health implications.

“An increasing body of evidence is pointing to the harsh respiratory effects of vaping,” Richter says. “Vaping can increase coughing and wheezing, and may exacerbate asthma. Athletes who vape find that they get out of breath more quickly. These cardiovascular effects can harm athletic performance.”

Handling Peer Pressure

So, when it seems as though everyone is doing it, how do you say no? Sports psychologist Dr. Caroline Silby, who has worked with Olympic and World Championship athletes on the mental aspects of performance, says it’s critical for young athletes to make decisions based on facts.

“Peers will interject emotional components into the equation,” Silby says. “For example, (kids may) shame a peer for not wanting to partake in something viewed as ‘edgy.’ Yet, a teen’s health and well-being need to be at the table as a driver of these decisions just as their health and well-being are at the table when athletic decisions are made.”

Silby notes that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has not yet prohibited nicotine use, though it is part of WADA’s Monitoring Program. Some athletes may enjoy the stimulant effect of nicotine, but they must look at the long-term consequences.

“When you’re encouraged to participate in an activity that has harmful outcomes, you really need to stop and think,” Silby says. “Just as an athlete needs to refocus after a bad play or a missed serve, a young person being encouraged to vape needs to step away, collect information and make an informed decision.”
It’s easier to say no in twos, so Silby suggests young athletes choose friends who share their perspective. Be confident in choices that fit with your values, beliefs and long-term goals.

“Elite athletes spend much effort and energy in developing mental skills so that they can see what’s in front of them with clarity and filter through distractions,” Silby says. “Introducing a self-imposed distraction such as vaping into an inherently ‘noisy’ sport environment makes no sense."

“It’s in the athlete’s best interest to direct his or her energy into identifying and executing small positive actions that can improve performance while allowing them to enjoy the process.”