Introduction by Ciera, a former high school student
For a brief moment in history, smoking was uncool. I remember seeing the kids in high school: leaning against their car, cigarettes dangling from their fingers. My friends and I would roll our eyes. “Gross—they probably smell like smoke.” But things have changed. My friends still think smoking is gross, but vaping is different. Vaping is easy and discrete. It can taste like strawberries and look like a flash drive. It’s not smoking—smoking is gross. Our parents smoked. This is vaping. It’s different. But is it?
In December of 2018, the Surgeon General Jerome Adams issued a rare advisory. He declared e-cigarette use among youth a national epidemic.
The research supports Adams’ advisory. According to a 2019 Monitoring the Future survey, more than 1 in 4 high school seniors reported vaping nicotine in the previous 30 days. That was nearly double the number of seniors recorded just two years ago in 2017.
E-cigarettes are now the most frequently used tobacco product among adolescents. Some 2.1 million middle and high school students were e-cigarette users in 2017 — far surpassing traditional cigarettes. Critics have blamed e-cig advertising for targeting younger audiences with fun flavors and bright colors. What’s more, younger audiences seem to view vaping as a safer alternative.
In a 2018 Missouri Student Survey, e-cigs were viewed by youth as the least risky substance followed by alcohol use. In the same survey, 65% of students said smoking traditional cigarettes (one or more packs a day) is a ‘great risk.’ It’s evident that students view e-cigs as something completely different—and less dangerous. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
A new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that teenagers who try e-cigarettes are more likely to begin smoking traditional cigarettes later on. Take this conclusion with a grain of salt: the authors note there’s just a strong association, not necessarily causation. They can’t necessarily prove that vaping is a gateway drug. But they did see that teens who start with e-cigarettes may be more likely to initiate cigarette smoking.
If e-cigs are a gateway drug, though, then the central source is JUUL.
JUUL is a popular e-cig brand that has quickly dominated the market. JUULs operate through cartridges called JUUL pods that contain vape liquid. The pods are usually sold in packs of four and come in flavors like cucumber, mango, and creme brulee. Each pod is said to contain 200 puffs.
One can buy refills online or in-person where prices can range from $10 to $25 depending on the store and local taxes. Youth are more likely to buy JUULs at physical retail locations where they seem to have no issue acquiring the product.
JUULs are relatively accessible to kids and teens. Adding to the issue, most youth and young adult users have no idea what they are ingesting.
A recent study published by the Truth Initiative found that, among current youth and young adult JUUL users, only 37% knew that the product always contains nicotine. Most teens incorrectly assume that these e-cigs are essentially flavoring. In reality, one JUUL pod is equal to one pack of cigarettes.
Richard Miech is the lead investigator at Monitoring the Future. He also studies substance abuse trends at the University of Michigan. In his opinion, teen vaping trends are very alarming. Miech explains that the e-cig industry has a lot to gain in targeting a younger audience. It may be up to teachers and parents to counteract widespread e-cig use.
As a parent or guardian, it’s important to understand the risks associated with vaping. Here are some quick facts.
As always, open and honest communication is key. It may feel easier to rely on scare tactics and misinformation, but for this topic, the truth is already convincing. Start a conversation with your teen with these tips as a guide:
E-cigarette companies want a new generation of addicts. With fun flavor, ease of access, and potent nicotine, it’s no surprise this is an epidemic. While federal regulations may be slow, parents, teachers, and even communities can band together to educate teens early on about the dangers of vaping.