For the vast majority of teenagers, vaping is a part of their daily lives. Even if they don’t use electronic cigarettes, they’re being inundated with images of vaping—either from seeing their peers doing it or seeing posts about it on social media.
That’s according to a new poll by Common Sense Media, a San Francisco based nonprofit that studies the impact of technology on children and young people. The poll comes as teen e-cigarette use has ballooned, and a slew of vaping-related deaths has sent schools and policymakers scrambling to contain a growing public health epidemic.
While e-cigarettes are generally seen as safer for adults than smoking traditional cigarettes, and have been promoted as a healthier alternative for already-addicted adult smokers, the sharp rise in vaping among teens has health experts worried.
Nicotine has long-term effects on young, developing brains, and the drug is much more concentrated in e-cigarettes than in regular cigarettes. E-cigs also contain toxic chemicals and metals.
Thirty percent of teens who start vaping progress to traditional cigarettes within six months, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
This latest poll from Common Sense illustrates how pervasive vaping has become in schools and social media sites popular with teens, such as Instagram and Snapchat.
Seventy-eight percent of teens said that vaping is popular among their peers where they live, and just over a third said they see classmates vaping in school several times a week, if not daily. More than half of teens reported that they see vaping at their school on a monthly basis.
Meanwhile, almost 60 percent of teens said that they frequently encounter a social media post that either mentions or shows vaping.
That’s especially true for teens on Instagram or Snapchat. Around 75 percent of teens that use those social media platforms report seeing posts that include vaping.
Peers and social media are also the most common sources for teens’ first introduction to vaping.
A plurality of teens—44 percent—say they first heard about vaping from someone they know. Meanwhile nearly a quarter of teens say they learned about vaping on social media.
If there’s one bit of silver lining, it’s that a sizable majority of teens said that the vaping-related ads they have seen were about the risks of vaping.
It appears from this survey that young people’s understanding of the potential harms of vaping may be evolving. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, over half of teens believe their e-cigarettes contain just flavoring.
But this recent Common Sense survey found that 52 percent think vaping is “about as harmful as smoking.” Thirty-one percent of teens said it’s more harmful and 17 percent said it’s less harmful. How much exposure teens had to online messages on the harmful affects of vaping appeared to affect their beliefs.
These survey results come as school leaders and policymakers are starting to take more muscular action against teen vaping.
A growing number of school districts have turned to the courts to do that. The Los Angeles Unified School District is the latest district to announce that it is suing one of the most popular e-cigarette manufacturers among teens, JUUL. The district claims that JUUL marketed e-cigarettes to teens and that the fast rise in vaping is harming students and costing the district money as it tries to contain the health crisis.
In recent months, there have been reports of hundreds of cases of lung-related illnesses associated with vaping—many of those cases have involved young people—and nearly three dozen deaths.
State and federal policymakers have also been taking action. Several states passed laws to curb teen vaping in 2019, according to the Education Commission of the States.
And the Trump administration also recently moved to tamp down on the sales of flavored e-cigarette products. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is looking into banning the sale of flavored vaping products until they are approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
JUULs are easy to hide, have a flavored smell, and don’t emit much vapor. So how is a teacher to know if a student is JUULing, or vaping, in class?