We can spot them from a mile away. Vapers—disappearing in a huge cloud of smoke every time they take a hit. Their cars look like fog machines if they are vaping while driving, and they are painfully visible in public as well. But is vaping cool? Does being surrounded by a huge cloud of white smoke enhance the image of the vaper? Not necessarily. Yet at least among young people, vaping is on the rise.
The Youth Vaping Epidemic
According to a study by Sareen Singh et al. (2020), electronic cigarette use has skyrocketed in the United States, rising to unprecedented levels among young people.[i] They examined patterns of what they term the “youth vaping epidemic,” potential harms stemming from the use of e-cigarettes, and the public health, clinical, and regulatory responses to youth e-cigarette use.
Singh et al. report that between 2017 and 2018, the reported past 30-day use of e-cigarettes containing nicotine by high school seniors nearly doubled. The increase, from 11% to 21%, was the largest recorded increase for any type of substance use among an adolescent population in over four decades. This is concerning because such widespread use could renormalize smoking behaviors, in addition to increasing the already documented vaping-related lung injuries in young people.
Singh et al. note that e-cigarettes are attractive to young people who would not otherwise smoke cigarettes. Indeed, while many adults use e-cigarettes as a substitute for conventional cigarettes, they observe that fewer than 8% of young people use them for this reason. Instead, citing a 2017 survey of youth and young adults, they note that reasons commonly cited for using e-cigarettes include curiosity, convenience, and social bonding. In addition, continued e-cigarette use was motivated partially by taste—with young people expressing preference for flavors mimicking fruit or dessert.
Regarding being user friendly, Singh note that so-called “pod mod” devices like JUUL are both sleek and easy to conceal, sleek. But what about social value?
Vaping and Social Status
Lacey N. Wallace and Michael J. Roche (2018) examined vaping and social status.[ii] Specifically, they examined the relationship between number of friends and peer leadership and the use of e-cigarettes, as well as beliefs about social consequences of use in college students. They found that neither the number of friends, nor one’s role in a peer group was linked with the use of e-cigarettes. They did note that having more friends who were e-cigarettes users was positively linked with being offered an e-cigarette, and accepting that offer. Not surprisingly, students who reported using e-cigarettes more frequently, as well as those who had friends who were e-cigarette users, perceived e-cigarette use as having a positive social effect. Contrary to expectations, however, they found no evidence that social standing contributed to student beliefs about social rewards connected with of e-cigarettes, or the likelihood of use.
Wallace and Roche note that college student e-cigarette use is linked with being White, male, having a Greek affiliation, and smoking or having smoked regular cigarettes in the past. They further found that White smokers perceived more positive social impact from e-cigarette use than non-White smokers, which they describe as consistent with existing research. They also cite research that found that among current and former cigarette smokers, Whites perceived a greater amount of social stigma attached to smoking than Latinos or Blacks. They could not, however, predict what type of social stigma might attach to e-cigarette smoking, because their sample may not equate to results within the general population.
The good news is that vaping does not appear to have the same allure and sex appeal that characterized cigarette smoking decades ago, and sadly sometimes still does today. We continually promote education designed to inform e-cigarette users about the serious health risks associated with vaping, which over time may very well outweigh whatever personal or social benefits they perceive.