Spotting Addictive Substances

Do you know what to look for?

Addictive substances can be easily confused with everyday items that can fly under the radar of caregivers trying to protect their kids. And they are increasingly being packaged and sold in ways that are highly appealing to young people. In recent years, edible products containing THC (the ingredient in marijuana that gets you high), flavored alcoholic seltzers, and nicotine vapes are marketed to young people with sweet, fruity, and minty flavors. Companies pay influencers and celebrities to endorse them. Plus, the discreet packaging makes it easy to hide from adults.

The research is clear: the earlier a person starts using any addictive substance, the more likely they are to develop a substance use disorder, or become addicted – which is one of the many reasons why it’s important to keep these substances away from children and teens. It’s hard for parents to stay on top of all the new, potentially addictive products emerging on the market, but it’s so important for them to be informed about what their kids are exposed to through friends, relatives, social media, and ad and product displays in their neighborhoods. Knowing what these products look like and their effects on young people can help you prepare your child and determine if your child is using and needs support.

Talking about these products, getting a sense of what your child knows and thinks about them, and explaining their effects are more likely to protect children than tempt children to try them. Below we explain the ways these substances are packaged, sold, and consumed so that parents can be an informed and credible source of information for children.

Cannabis / Marijuana

A wide range of cannabis / marijuana products are now available that can make using them seem easier to use and less harmful than the traditional method of smoking. Young people increasingly are using vaping devices with liquids or cartridges that contain THC. These vapes come in all kinds of colors and flavors that appeal to youth but have highly toxic chemicals. Edibles are dried marijuana or oils that are infused into snacks, baked goods, and candies, such as gummies. When consumed as an edible, marijuana can have stronger, less predictable effects compared to smoking because, as the edible works its way through the digestive system, the effects are delayed (relative to smoking). This can lead the user to ingest higher and higher doses to feel the expected high.


Vaping nicotine is now the main way that young people use tobacco products. Vaping is the act of inhaling and exhaling the aerosol, often referred to as “vapor,” produced by an e-cigarette or similar device. These devices have very high doses of addictive nicotine and other toxic chemicals, including flavorings that make them both very appealing and dangerous to young people. Vaping devices (also known as vapes) tend to have a discreet appearance, resembling USBs, pens, lipsticks, or other common household products. Toxic chemicals, harmful metals, and volatile organic compounds are found in vapes and can lead to vaping-related respiratory illnesses, heart problems, mental health problems, other substance use, and addiction. In recent years, a range of oral nicotine products have also become available, which contain high doses of nicotine and resemble gums, lozenges, and candies. Finally, small, flavored cigars packaged in bright colors and in child-appealing ways are now the second most commonly used nicotine product among youth, following vapes.


Alcohol is typically the most widely used substance among young people; however, it is important to note that underage drinking is at an all-time low. When kids do drink, they tend to do so in excessive ways, including binge drinking, getting drunk, and in some cases drinking until they black out. They also tend to do so in groups and in situations that can be dangerous and lead to accidents, injuries, and possibly alcohol poisoning. Alcohol brands and manufacturers understand that young people often do not like the taste of alcohol and advertise products targeting youth by using fruity flavors that make drinking easier and alcoholic seltzers that seem less harmful than beer and other forms of alcohol. These products are packaged in ways that resemble soda and fruit juice, making them easier to hide from parents.


Fentanyl is a highly potent drug that is becoming increasingly prevalent in cases of drug overdose deaths across the US, especially among adolescents. In most cases, young people do not intentionally consume fentanyl, but are accidentally exposed to it when taking a prescription pill that was not prescribed for them or using another illicit drug. Fentanyl is an opioid, an immensely powerful pain medication that is 100x more potent than morphine and 50x more potent than heroin. Fentanyl has been found in illicit drugs such as cocaine and heroin but also in more common drugs thought to be prescription pills, obtained through friends or dealers either in person or online. Although the safest option is to avoid any drug use, if someone chooses to use, it is very important to test all substances for fentanyl, as amounts as small as the tip of a pencil can be lethal. Test strips for fentanyl are becoming increasingly accessible, often available through local departments of health or harm reduction centers.

Regardless of the substance of concern, when discussing these issues with children, it is important to take a health and safety approach rather than a punitive one. Establishing an open dialogue and trusting relationship will provide space for children to feel like they can come to parents and other trusted adults for information and advice. At the same time, it is important to set clear boundaries and expectations along with consequences if those boundaries are crossed. You can learn more about how to communicate with a young person about substance use and set boundaries in articles like Connecting with Your Teen and Setting Limits and Monitoring Behavior on Partnership to End Addiction’s website.