Not so long ago, vapes were distinctly embarrassing. If there was ever such a thing as an anti-aphrodisiac: pulling a clunky, sonic-screwdriver-like device out of your pocket in 2015 might be it. But flash forward to 2022, and vapes are quite literally everywhere. They’re part of the social fabric of any house party; swirls of fruity vapour; a scattershot of peach, of mango ice, of blue lemonade.
Yet it is vaping’s innocuous character – their pocket-sized stature and boiled-candy shades – that makes this trend so worrying. As of last month,one in five 15-year-old girls in England vape. While less than one in eight secondary schoolchildren had ever smoked a cigarette in 2021 (the lowest number since records began in 1982), e-cigarette use among schoolchildren is spiralling.
But here’s the most perplexing part. While health experts have declared a “teen vaping epidemic”, Gen Zers are reportedlydrinking less alcoholandtaking less recreational drugs than previous generations. So as heavy drinking and snorting lines are increasingly falling out of fashion, why are vapes suddenly in vogue?
When I speak to Lily, 22, over Zoom, she’s three days cold turkey from Juuling, and is puffing on a sleek, zero-nicotine device. “It has essential oils in it,” she tells me. “It’s helping with the oral fixation.” Back in 2017, her mum had bought her a Juul in an attempt to get her off cigarettes, after seeing them advertised as a way to quit smoking. Soon enough, she found herself compulsively vaping, particularly when studying. It helped her focus, and it was something to do with her hands that wasn’t eating or biting her nails. By the time she got to university, everyone was doing it. “It was so omnipresent that nobody thought twice about it,” she reflects. “It’s definitely not viewed as something that is serious or shameful within most social groups now, the same way that if one person in the group was a cigarette smoker, people would chastise them.”
It’s definitely not viewed as something that is serious or shameful within most social groups now, the same way that if one person in the group was a cigarette smoker, people would chastise them.
E-cigarettes don’t produce carbon monoxide or tar – two of the most harmful components of tobacco smoke – yet they are associated with a plethora of dangerous health effects, from gum disease to lung injury. Many e-cigarettes contain a chemical called diacetyl, which is known to cause bronchiolitis obliterans, or “popcorn lung”, the scarring of the smallest branches in the lungs. While diacetyl is present in cigarette smoke at an even higher quantity, the health risks of vaping are less known, and easier to ignore.
“It felt like I could smoke but without the negative health consequences,” says Ethan, now 24, as he recalls sampling a vape when he started university at a promotional van parked near campus. Since 2018, he’s been sober from drugs and alcohol, and has quit smoking cigarettes, but finds himself craving his vape throughout the day. “There is a part of me that wants to quit, if anything for the sake of just not being reliant on a substance, but it’s not so much like I’m paranoid about the health risks.”
Without the stench of tobacco or the sinister images of lung disease and rotten teeth plastered on the back of packs of cigarettes, it’s easy to vape and not feel like you’re doing anything unhealthy. This was certainly the case for Lily, who, despite vaping, only drank alcohol on the weekends, never took recreational drugs, and worked out four to five times a week for at least an hour. “I do think that taking care of my body is super important,” she emphasises. “There’s an irony in consuming nicotine and having this addiction to something that is inherently bad for you, and also being incredibly health conscious.”
Yet the contradiction is symptomatic of a wider cultural trend. A recent study from the University of Georgia revealed that, counterintuitively, high school students who work out four to five days a week were actually 23% more likely to vape than their less active peers. “With each grade, there is a higher and higher proportion of students using it,” Janani Rajbhandari-Thapa, lead author of the study and an associate professor in UGA’s College of Public Health told Bricks. “Given that trend, I think it’s important for schools to include policies around controlling vape use.” She suggested that e-cigarettes being “marketed as a healthier option” is the underlying presumption of why they saw such results.
Earlier this month, Juul agreed to pay nearly $440 million to settle a two-year investigation by 33 states into the marketing of its high-nicotine products. The lawsuit charged that Juul appealed to teenagers through launch parties and social media posts, engaging with influencers with large numbers of underage followers, as well as advertising on youth-aimed sites such as dailydressupgames.com and socialstudiesforkids.com. A glimpse at Juul’s early marketing campaigns also hints toward an adolescent-geared focus, using 20-something models flung in youthful poses. In one image, posted on Juul’s Facebook page and captioned ‘Vapor Love’, a couple passionately kiss against a wall, as the man flaunts his vape in his free hand. The company are now banned from depicting anyone under 35 in its marketing images.
It’s a promising sign that adolescents are being more mindful about their health in regard to alcohol and drug use, but it’s worth taking note of the surrounding social pressures. Juul’s lawsuit highlights the way in which our cultural obsession with smoking has been upheld by social media, and perhaps has played a role in discouraging heavy drinking too. While 16-to-25-year-olds are the most likely age group to be teetotal (26% don’t drink at all), they’re also the only demographic to have grown up with social media, with49% of Gen Zers claiming that their online image is always at the back of their mind. And amidst a range of other physiological and financial considerations, the possibility of having your drunken antics circulating online certainly makes the prospect of getting black-out drunk less appealing.
The teen vaping epidemic amidst a ‘sober curious’ movement is just one example of how being ‘healthy’ in 2022 is complicated. Much like the compulsive ‘What I Eat in a Day’ videos circulating on Youtube and Tiktok, health-consciousness is frequently bound up with layers of self-flagellating anxieties and insecurities, and we won’t get anywhere without examining these conflicting pressures. Until then, as long as vapes are perceived as cool and don’t risk making you look ugly, we’ll struggle to quench the habit.
Arielle is a freelance writer living in New York. She is interested in documenting cultural shifts and trends, drawing her to everything from virtual raves to vaping addiction to reality TV.
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