Vaping: The New Youth Epidemic?

A VoiceBox feature piece exploring the appeal, risks, and mental health implications of young people vaping
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Created by VoiceBox

Published on May 16, 2023
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The young people interviewed for this piece have been anonymised.

“When I was a teenager, it was all about cigarettes”, explained 25-year-old Mia. She sat opposite me tapping her vape – also known as an e-cigarette – on the table. Clasped tightly between her thumb and fore-finger, the bright pink Elf Bar presented as an extension of herself while she tried to quit smoking. “I mean, 16-year-olds would take up smoking because they thought it was cool. 

“By 18 they were hooked.”

As an ‘older’ young person myself, this was unsurprising. Social smoking was a right of passage at many schools a few years ago; but since then, something has shifted. A universal acknowledgement that smoking is bad for you, perhaps. Or maybe it simply went out of fashion. It seems the only people left smoking are the ones trying to quit, much like Mia, who now relies on Elf Bars – one of the dozens of e-cigarette brands – for a nicotine kick.

“I can’t lie, they’ve helped massively”, she continued. “I feel much better than I did when I was smoking cigarettes, but I definitely wouldn’t recommend someone taking up vaping unless they’re trying to wean themselves off smoking altogether.” 

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Reports of children as young as 10 vaping in UK schools have frequented headline news, with national surveys indicating that the number of minors who vape has nearly doubled in two years. And it’s not just the UK struggling to regulate vaping. Italy has proposed to ban it from indoor spaces, while the US banned all products from vaping company Juul in 2022.  

So why is vaping popular? 

It was just cool to do as a kid and we were always looking for a buzz. That just turned into an addiction” – Reddit user.

A lot of teenagers would come in [vape shops] and get Juuls and pods in a zero because their friends were doing it and it looked cool but they didn't wanna 'get a nicotine addiction’” – Reddit user. 

For the nice buzz” – Reddit user.

Media literacy 

It’s 1928. The ‘Father of Modern Public Relations’, Edward Bernays, has just launched the ‘Torches of Freedom’ campaign, which entwined first-wave feminism with the tobacco industry. Women were encouraged to march down Fifth Avenue, smoking their ‘Torches of Freedom’ in the name of equality. It created a sense of empowerment, pride, and, to the glee of tobacco bosses, an uptake in female smokers. But while attitudes towards smoking have changed, the media associated with it is equally as strong. 

When you look at a traditional smoking advert nowadays, how does it make you feel? The cigarette packets with images of poor lung health and sharp warnings to the dangers of smoking are there to make you feel uncomfortable. To think twice before lighting up. 

Polar opposite, yet equally powerful, e-cigarette industries push advertising that often resonates with children and young people, who seem to be the target market for many vape products. In 2022, Chinese-owned brand Elf Bar came under fire for paying influencers to flaunt its products on TikTok. Elf Bar is well known for the tagline ‘Make it Elf, enjoy yourself’, and has previously composed colourful, eye-catching posters that feature young models and tempting slogans. The sweet, brightly coloured vapes are relatively affordable in comparison to smoking (£5.99 and 600 puffs), available in 28 flavours ranging from blue rasberry to cotton candy. 

Mia is very aware of the chokehold Elf Bars have on teenagers. “I was walking home the other day and a group of teenage girls stopped me and asked if I could buy them an Elf Bar.”

She seemed to register my shocked expression.

“Are you surprised? It happens a lot. They’d clearly been denied buying one somewhere, but to be honest, plenty of places don’t bother to check.”

I asked Mia why she thought vaping was so popular among teens. 

“A whole range of factors I think. I will say that advertising and social media appear to play a big part. 

“Like, there’s those YouTube videos of kids vaping in cars. And there’s stuff on TikTok too. It’s seen as ‘fashionable’ to vape I guess.”

Classmates told me to vape and made fun of me when I declined” – Reddit user.

While TikTok includes its fair share of anti-vape videos (and Be Informed and Be Aware pop-ups), the hashtags #Vaping #Ad and #Vaping #Gifted reveals a rabbit hole of content that flaunts vaping in an appealing way.

One TikTok account labelled as an ‘E-Cig Pod Factory’ parades vapes designed to look like colourful sippy cups and cute pets, with some videos amassing millions of views. The comments include a flurry of excited users who all want to try the products:  

“Lovely…. My 8yo wants 1”

“Where can I get it?”

“That’s cute”

“I need one!”

Another TikTok creator demonstrates how to buy a vape when you’re underage. “It’s all about confidence”, the caption read, as they mimicked purchasing a vape from a sceptical store owner. 

“A shop close to my school sells to anyone as long as you pay in cash so your parents can’t check it”, said one user in the comments.

All of the videos under #gifted and #ad hashtags are impressionable and tantalising – exploitative towards children and young people who are still developing skills in media literacy. As strong as traditional cigarette adverts are in deterring you from smoking, vaping adverts do the opposite; drawing you in from fear of missing out. After all, everyone else is doing it, and it's ‘just vapour’, so what’s the harm? 

Not kidding when I say it’s the tiny sixth graders too, probably even the fifth graders. It’s so unbelievable to hear that those kids are vaping dude” – Reddit user. 

Half my friends who do it started it coz “cool” the other half coz peer pressure” – Reddit user.

In the past two weeks I’ve had FOUR instances of high school kids vaping IN class” – Reddit user.

Lack of knowledge

The main difference between vaping and smoking is that vapes do not contain tobacco, a toxic substance known to cause cancer. And because vapes are so new in comparison to cigarettes, the long-term health risks are unknown. 

E-cigarettes are often recommended by health professionals to patients who are trying to quit smoking, although it is made clear that non-smokers should not start using them. The UK government recently announced a vaping scheme as part of their anti-smoking crackdown, which will give one million smokers a free vaping starter kit to help them kick cigarettes. But while some experts endorse the use of vapes by smokers, others are keen to address the inimical risks believed to be associated with e-cigarettes.  

Harsher studies have found a number of vapes produce dangerous chemicals that can “cause lung disease, as well as cardiovascular (heart) disease.” Herbicide, used to kill weeds, has also been identified in vapes which may cause acute lung injury, asthma and lung cancer.

Twenty-five-year-old Josh – a non-smoker – suffers from asthma and uses an inhaler. “Luckily, my asthma isn’t really bad”, he told me. “But I do have to be careful. I’ve been caught out a few times.”

Josh’s friend recently offered him a vape when they were out at a bar. “The flavour was really nice. I can’t remember what it was now, probably strawberry or something. I don’t even like sweet stuff normally so I’m not sure why I was so into it, but I ended up having a few puffs of it.”

This triggered Josh’s asthma. “I was staying at my girlfriend's flat and forgot my inhaler. We called 111 in the end because I thought I was going to have an asthma attack. Safe to say I haven’t touched a vape since.”

In the UK, vaping is permitted in indoor spaces. While there is little evidence that passive smoking from e-cigarettes is harmful, it can be an uncomfortable experience for non-vapers who may find themselves sharing a room full of sweet fumes.

“It is annoying”, said Josh. “Ok, it’s perfectly legal and all that, but there’s something so antisocial about it.

“I really don’t want to be breathing it in. Sometimes it makes my chest feel tight and I need to leave that space or I’ll become ill.” 

I’ve gotten really good at finding the right moment to vape indoors and not be seen” – Reddit user.

While we know that e-cigarettes can be beneficial for current smokers, the increasing level of non-smokers adopting the use of vapes is troubling. New Zealand recorded a tripled number of 15-17 year-old vape users over two years. India – despite its 2019 ban – is also reportedly struggling with teen uptake. 

Conflicting studies and lack of awareness around potential health risks appear to play a strong part in e-cigarette popularity. Traditional smoking – universally known as a human ‘killer’ – is proven to cause irreversible harm. But vaping is new. It’s ‘fashionable’. And it’s considered a healthier alternative. Any possibility of inflicted damage seems far away. 

Whoever reads this, vaping is addictive and harmful for your health, do not start doing it” – Reddit user. 

I’m tired all the time, I’ve been breathing heavy and my lungs feel tired. Someone help me out here” – Reddit user. 

It’s literally flavoured air that kills you and is expensive” – Reddit user. 

The tricky issue of mental health

“I 100% took up smoking because of bad mental health”, said Mia. “I was in an abusive relationship and no one was listening to me. It felt like no one cared.”

“Smoking relaxed me. It was like a nice distraction from the absolute disaster that was my life.”

Mia has since left the clutches of her abusive relationship, but the smoking habit remains. 

“It upsets me. I would have never taken it up if it wasn’t for that period in my life. I feel like a lot of people are villainized for smoking  – maybe even vaping – but for some of us, it’s a mental health outlet.

“Like, support is so scarce elsewhere, what else are we meant to do?”

Unfortunately, Mia isn’t an anomaly. 

Twenty-three-year-old Saskia started smoking after the relationship with her family broke down. 

“I was also suffering with bulimia”, she explained. “I waited for months and months and months for some kind of therapy session, and one of the things they told me was to have a cigarette if I was feeling guilty or stressed.

“Seems ridiculous that a mental health professional told me to do something so harmful.”

Saskia – who has since recovered from her eating disorder – now vapes as an alternative to smoking. 

“I do occasionally have a cigarette if I’ve had a bad day at work or something. But mostly I just vape. The thing is, although my bulimia is way better, I’ve never had stable mental health, literally since school.”

She laughed and shook her head. “I would be too anxious to go outside sometimes. Seems silly now.”

Saskia has never received the proper support she deserves, despite a turbulent mental health history and schools flagging her as a vulnerable child. 

“I’m doing what the therapist told me to do. Continue to vape and smoke until they have the resources to help me properly”, she added.

Both Mia and Saskia expressed feeling anxious if they don’t have a vape on their person, and how they sometimes take it out on others when they’re having a nicotine withdrawal. 

“I yelled at my best friend in a train station over a vape”, admitted Mia. “I feel stuck in this cycle sometimes. Not that it’s an excuse or anything. Mental health services ignored me when I needed them the most. Smoking, and now vaping to be honest, is like a temporary fix.” 

The wait time for mental health support in many countries is a long one. While the UK aims to see patients within three months, there are reports of this being much longer. One study found 12% of patients might not be seen for six months, while 6% could wait for more than a year. In Australia, a post-pandemic toll saw the demand for services explode, with some waiting four to six months to be seen. The US is facing a similar problem with 60% of psychologists reporting no openings for new patients, and more than 40% carrying waiting lists of 10 or more patients.

For some teenagers who are struggling with depression, it may seem like an easy way out to ease the pain” – Reddit user. 

“'I'm sick of it. I’m done. Wasting £80 a month damaging my health, I hate it. I started vaping as a form of self-harm about a year ago but I don’t want to anymore” – Reddit user. 

It’s easy to see, then, why some use vaping as a coping mechanism until further support becomes available. But while vapes may provide some temporary relief, there have been reports of increasing depressive symptoms over time among adolescent vape users. Many young people might not realise that vaping is further contributing to mental health problems long term.

"Honestly, I would be so bored if it wasn't for vaping. I love it so much. I vape at 2mg as well” – Reddit user. 

What does the VoiceBox community think?

Young people in the VoiceBox community generally had shared perspectives. Some expressed how vaping is not as demonised as smoking tobacco, while accessibility was also listed as a key issue to e-cigarette demand. Ninety-two percent felt vaping has grown in popularity, and 82% considered vaping to be ‘fashionable’. Worryingly, 80% believed people aren’t aware of the health risks.

These findings represent a small part of what many people already know – that vaping isn’t regulated well enough. 

The amount of children I see smoking these [vapes] is absolutely an issue” – Reddit user.

In the UK it is illegal to sell vapes to under 18s, while in the US the same law applies to under 21s. Yet children and young people are some of the most avid e-cigarette users, with one study reporting that American teenagers between 15 and 17 have a 1600% higher chance of using vapes than adults between 25 and 34. 

It seems that the ‘challenge 25’ policy so commonly associated with alcohol, lottery tickets and even painkillers is not applied with the same vigour to e-cigarettes.

“I definitely look under 25 and I hardly ever get checked when I buy a vape. I mean, I do sometimes in big supermarkets, but I tend to buy them in corner shops and they just don’t care as much”, said Mia. 

E-cigarettes are available in bulk from many places online, with Elf Bar prices ranging from £40-46 for 10. This might seem expensive until you check the traditional cigarette equivalent which can be purchased from wholesale stores for over £90. With the resale price of an Elf Bar costing about £5.99, UK shops are able to make a tidy profit from this currently tax-free product. 

And it’s not just low cost that makes e-cigarettes so popular among store owners. Lack of regulation on UK soil makes it easy to get hold of unlawful (and therefore highly desirable) vapes for children and young people to buy. Recent tests have found “oversized and overstrength” vapes being sold illegally in some UK shops, with laboratory analysis of 52 products bought in England identifying that “73% were above the legal e-cigarette tank capacity of 2ml.” 

It’s not Britain anymore if you don’t find a disposable vape on the floor every 10 minutes, seriously, I’m seeing kids that look 10 vaping” – Reddit user.

I tried a friend's 3 mg nicotine juice once and I noticed that it had a pretty noticeable effect on my anxiety levels, so I’ve been using 3mg for about five years especially in stressful situations” – Reddit user.

Poor regulation paired with exploitative advertising has created a toxic, yet successful concoction that manipulates the still-developing brains of children and young people. Traditional smoking, once a trope in society for style and attractiveness, is now recognised as extremely harmful. But vaping is perceived differently. It’s marketed differently. Adolescents who have never smoked in their lives are now using e-cigarettes because they’re exciting. They temporarily manage symptoms of poor mental health, and sadly, for some people, it’s simply something to do.

I’ve been a lifelong fidgeter, I constantly have to have something in my hands to play with or I get insanely restless. Honestly started because I enjoyed the flavours and it was something to do with my hands” – Reddit user.

I started because my friends in school started. I was never a cigarette smoker so I guess I am the epitome of ecigs” – Reddit user

I started mostly cuz all my friends were vaping and I tried theirs and got hooked. Biggest mistake of my life” – Reddit user. 

What needs to change?

While we can’t go back in time and reverse what has happened, steps can be taken to ensure future harm is limited:

  • Inappropriate social media campaigning must be curbed. While promoting age-restricted products to minors is already regulated, the current landscape of e-cigarette publicity ignores these rules and targets children unlawfully through advertisement design, physical product design and influencer marketing.
  • The current data around e-cigarette harm is limited. Progress needs to be made so we can better understand the health implications from vaping. 
  • E-cigarette harm must be communicated more. Educational settings, campaigns, and product packaging can all play a part in conveying such an important message. 
  • Prioritising early intervention support must be a policy priority. Many children and young people are being driven towards the harmful use of vapes because of the long wait times so often linked to mental health services, which sadly amplifies existing distress. Children and young people aren’t just not getting better without treatment. They’re getting worse. 
  • Children and young people who vape should not be belittled, demonised, or talked down to. We must involve them in the conversation and encourage them to kick the habit for their physical health, mental health and wallet. 

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