A Look Inside the Youth Vaping Craze

It charges in your computer, it’s small enough to fit snugly in your pocket, and it can even be used without anyone knowing about it.

This is how teenagers smoke nowadays.

Vaping -- inhaling and exhaling vapor produced by a battery-powered electronic cigarette, usually containing nicotine -- has become the most popular method of tobacco use among teens around the country. According to the Surgeon General, nearly one in four middle and high school students have tried it.

A Juul e-cigarette (Mylesclark96/Wikipedia)

One of the most popular vaping devices, made by Juul, a San Francisco-based company, looks a lot like a flash drive and has been referred to as the "iphone of vaporizers." The Juul first launched in 2015 and has since become the best selling e-cigarette in the country. It's also widely used among underage students, so much so that “Juul” is now commonly used as a verb.

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The discretion is part of the appeal. In school, techniques for hiding the white vapor include blowing into your shirt, or holding it in your mouth until it becomes invisible. Juul devices produce flavored vapors and create very little plume, allowing students to sometimes even get away with vaping in class.

And critics argue that the accessibility of vaping products and the marketing strategies the companies use, which often target teens, have helped attract a growing number of teens.

E-cigarette makers claim that their devices offer a much safer alternative to smoking conventional cigarettes. But as many school officials struggle to control the rapid rise of vaping among their students, some fear the devices are creating a new generation of nicotine addicts.

Meanwhile, public health researchers argue that the technology is too new to understand the long-term health effects, particularly among young people.

And although vaping devices don’t have many of the harmful ingredients found in standard tobacco cigarettes, they’re often used with pods that contain higher concentrations of nicotine. A growing body of public health research suggests that vaping may be leading more young people to start smoking cigarettes.

Estimated percentage of high school students who currently use any tobacco products, any combustible tobacco products, tobacco products, and selected tobacco products. National Youth Tobacco Survey, United States, 2011–2016. (CDC)
Estimated percentage of middle school students who currently use any tobacco products, any combustible tobacco products, tobacco products, and selected tobacco products. National Youth Tobacco Survey, United States, 2011–2016. (CDC)

Overall youth tobacco use in the United States actually fell to historic lows in 2016, the latest year data were available. The number of middle and high school students who used any kind of tobacco product fell to 3.9 million, a huge drop from the estimated 4.7 million underage tobacco users reported in 2015, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It marked the first decline since 2011, when the the CDC began conducting the National Youth Tobacco Survey, in which respondents are asked if they've used tobacco products within the last 30 days.

Between 2015 and 2016, underage use of e-cigarettes among high school students declined the most dramatically, falling to 11.3 percent of high schoolers in 2016, from 16 percent in 2015. But that drop comes after years of consecutive increases since 2011.

Despite these decreases, public health experts are concerned that the popularity of Juul and similar devices will send youth rates on the rise again.

“I was smoking cigarettes as a coping mechanism, which is obviously incredibly awful, and I knew I had to stop, so I turned to Juuling,” said a junior from Lowell High School in San Francisco who didn't want her name used.

Trevor, a student at Lowell who doesn't vape, described the current fad:

“A ton of [people] have Juuls. I think it's a popularity thing. You’re considered cooler if you have a Juul and hit it all the time.”

It wasn’t until 2016 that the Food and Drug Administration used its authority to regulate e-cigarettes and set the national minimum age to legally buy and consume them at 18. The rules, though, vary widely by state. In California, the minimum age is 21, but there's little stopping an 18-year-old student here from buying a vaping device online from a state like Texas, where the minimum age is much lower.

While vaping companies say they are opposed to underage use, many teens note how easy it is to purchase devices, either by going to smoke shops that don’t check IDs or ordering them off of secondary sites like eBay.

“When I got to vaping, I could physically do it anytime, anywhere and it wouldn’t matter, and so you get used to just sipping on it,” said a high school senior from San Jose who didn't want his name used. He admits he's definitely become somewhat addicted, but isn't too concerned about it.

"I have confidence I could stop, it’s not a long-time thing, but I’m at a point where it doesn’t really matter. I’m young and I really enjoy it.”

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