Until recently, tobacco use was on the decline among Idaho’s youth. Vaping––smoking e-cigarettes––reversed this trend, and tobacco use is surging among those most likely to develop a lifelong addiction. As mother of adolescents, here’s what I’ve learned about why:
To a teen, vaping or Juuling is not considered smoking. Vape companies, like industry leader Juul, recognizing the bad rap cigarettes have––particularly among youth––reframed the conversation. They bill their product as healthier than cigarettes, which is untrue. One 5% JuulPod contains the nicotine of a pack of cigarettes for roughly the same price. What’s more, fruity flavors and targeted marketing have made these products attractive to adolescents, at time in their lives when they are most likely to develop an addiction.
Even without nicotine, vaping is in no way healthier than smoking cigarettes. “Vape” isn’t water vapor, but an aerosol, comprised of chemicals that have not been approved by the FDA for inhalation. Kevin Burns, former CEO of Juul, apologized for teens who’ve become addicted, admitting they don’t know for sure the health impacts of using their product.
“Frankly, we don’t know… we have not done the long term, longitudinal testing that we need to do,” he said on a CBS interview this summer. His apology rings hollow considering Juul led the surge in the market in 2015 with an aggressive campaign on social media platforms popular with youth, featuring models their own executives weren’t sure were adults. Later the parent company of Philip Morris, Altria, recognized Juul’s success in developing the adolescent market and pumped billions into the company. They later replaced Burns with their own representative.
Even when one recognizes the health risks of vaping, the product carries little of the same social stigma as cigarettes for teens. Cigarette smokers are readily identifiable by the smell of their clothing and car interiors. It lingers on their breath. Vaping is easier to hide. It has a mild scent, easily mistaken for gum, a hair product, scented candles, or lip balm. It doesn’t produce butts or ash. Vapes can be camouflaged as atomizers, flash drives, or pens. Products are available to help hide vapes, like hoodies with secret drawstring compartments (Google “camouflaged vaping devices” for examples).
If you don’t believe vape companies deliberately target Idaho’s youth, consider: why would an industry that makes a product exclusively for adult consumption bother with such camouflage?
Additionally, vaping makes it easier to become addicted to nicotine than cigarette use. Cigarette smokers tend to finish a smoke break after one or two cigarettes. Sometimes throat irritation encourages them to stop. Vapers have no natural stopping point like the end of a cigarette, and the absence of tar in vape juice means less of an abrasive an effect on the throat.
Vapes are easy to buy. Teens don’t have to enter a store. They can shop online, shipping products to a friend or PO box (which a teen can legally open to hide from nosy parents).
Educators find the problem as frustrating as parents. Students tell me kids challenge each other in class to puff while a teacher’s back is turned. These students tell me the CDC statistics are low: It’s not one in four high school and one in ten middle school students who have tried vaping. It’s many more.
While we raised our son to regard cigarette smoking as harmful and disgusting, somehow vaping was attractive and easy enough for him to take up the habit. Now I wake to the sound of his hacking like an old man as he prepares for school each morning.
I wonder, of those executives at Altria and others in the industry who spend billions on expanding the market for tobacco products, how many ever think of the teens who’ve become addicted and will suffer lifelong health consequences as a result? How many think of the 5.6 million Americans younger than 18 the CDC estimates will die early from a smoking-related illness?
Our representatives must make it harder for teens to access vape products, giving parents, educators, school administrators, and law enforcement a much-needed assist.