5 Strategies to Prevent Nicotine Use by Those with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

It’s hard to believe that smoking was once thought of as fashionable, glamorous even. Today, we know better. In 2018, 13.7 percent[1] of American adults were smokers, down from 42.6 percent in 1965[2].  

We’re making progress, but not equally. Among individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities (I/DD), smoking rates are 29.3 percent[3], double that of American adults overall. Fortunately, more than half—56.9 percent[3]—of people with I/DD who smoke have tried to quit in the past year. 

Some turn to vaping—using an e-cigarette—to quit or because they believe it’s a safer alternative to smoking. Vaping rates among people with intellectual or developmental disabilities are only slightly higher than rates for other adults, with 9.4 percent of people with I/DD vaping[3] compared to 8 percent of American adults[4] overall.  

Influenced by Others 

A top concern is the spike we’re seeing in vaping by youth and young adults, which poses a significant risk for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Research indicates that when making their own decisions, people with I/DD often rely on the advice or guidance of siblings and peers[5]. Among young people, e-cigarette use has jumped 46.2 percent for 18- to 24-year-olds[6] and by a whopping 77.8 percent for middle- and high-school students[6] between 2017 and 2018.  

Most young people begin vaping without ever having smoked traditional cigarettes. They use nicotine recreationally and many believe it is a performance enhancer or study aid[7][8], but it’s far more dangerous for young people and people with I/DD to vape than other adults.  

Health Risks of Vaping 

According to the Surgeon General, e-cigarette use brings avoidable health risks, which may be significant[9]. Vaping among young people may lead to cigarette smoking which remains the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States[10]. Vaping also increases the potential for addiction[11].  

E-cigarette vapor contains chemicals which are inhaled into the lungs and circulated throughout the body leading to problems with brain development[11] and respiratory health[12]

Respiratory issues and disease can be common in people who live with intellectual or developmental disabilities[13], compounding the avoidable health risks presented by vaping. 

Much like smoking, vaping is a significant health risk for your loved one with an intellectual or developmental disability. Now that you know the risks, what can you do to prevent them? 

Five strategies to discourage people with intellectual or developmental disabilities from vaping: 

  1. Set a good example. Go e-cigarette- and tobacco-free yourself to ensure your loved one is not exposed to secondhand emissions from e-cigarettes or tobacco products.  
  2. Talk to your loved one about why vaping is harmful. It’s never too late. If you need help, download the Surgeon General’s Talk With Your Teen About E-cigarettes: A Tip Sheet for Parents [PDF]. While targeting teens, it provides actionable tips and sample conversations that will help you start the conversation about why e-cigarettes are harmful for your loved one. 
  3. Express concern for your loved one’s health. Vaping products aren’t safe, and you want them to avoid all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. 
  4. Seek help. Set up an appointment with your loved one’s health care provider so they can hear about the health risks of vaping and tobacco use directly from a medical professional. 
  5. Speak with their direct support professional, teacher or others who provide them support about enforcing vape-, smoke- and tobacco-free policies and tobacco prevention education. 

For more information about vaping and helping your loved one quit, visit CambriaUSA.com/WeKnow or TruthInitiative.org/ThisIsQuitting


[5]https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1540796915586189 Jameson, J. M., Riesen, T., Polychronis, S., Trader, B., Mizner, S., Martinis, J., & Hoyle, D. (2015). Guardianship and the potential of supported decision making with individuals with disabilities. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 40(1), 36–51. 
[8] https://academic.oup.com/