Monday, August 15, 2022

Young non-smokers in NZ use vaping more than ever before. Here are 5 reasons why

The number of young New Zealanders aged 15 to 17 who have vape every day has tripled in two years, from 2% in 2018-19 to 6% in 2020-21, according to the most recent New Zealand Health Survey. For young adults, between the ages of 18 and 24, daily vaping increased from 5% to 15%.

Another national survey focused on year 10 school pupils shows these increases are particularly high for Māori girls. About one in five Māori girls aged 14 to 15 steamed daily in 2021.

Increases in regular vaping (defined as vaping at least monthly) are also large, especially for Māori boys (19% in 2019 to 31% in 2021) and girls (19% to 41%).

While manufacturers claim vapes are lower risk alternatives for people who smoke cigarettes, many people who vape have never smoked.

If only smokers started using vaping, we would expect to see increases in vaping offset by equivalent decreases in smoking. Instead, the growth in daily vaping exceeds the decrease in daily smoking.

If vapes have never been introduced, many young non-smokers may not have started using any nicotine products. Our new research helps explain why non-smokers are starting to smoke.

5 factors that lead young non-smokers to vaping

The makers and promoters of vapes have been criticized for youth-centered promotions using social media influencers and music event sponsorship. Some retailers have also circumvented recent laws aimed at preventing juveniles from being exposed to attractive vape products and e-liquid fragrances.

The regulation of operational activities to prevent youth vaping should remain an important focus of policy, research and monitoring. But the personal reasons why young non-smokers start smoking can provide additional insights and ways to reduce the problem.

Our research, published in the journal PLOS One, is based on in-depth face-to-face interviews with 16 young adults, between the ages of 18 and 25, who identified themselves as regular vapers (from daily to at least several times each) month ). Using a qualitative approach, we identified five factors that helped explain what led these young non-smokers to vaping.

Read more: Vape vendors use popular music videos to promote e-cigarettes to young people – and it works

Two of these factors – connection and belonging, and balancing social status and stigma – were psychosocial in nature. Vaping is a highly social activity, taking place mainly in shared apartments or at parties. Being part of a peer group where a circuit revolved has helped strengthen relationships through a collective experience.

The common nature of vaping also helped to provide access to social groups where participants had previously felt on the periphery. For example, one participant enjoyed how his vape piqued the interest of others and acted as a conversation beginner, while another explained how vaping helped him “fit in” at parties.

The second theme, balancing social status and stigma, reflects the way vapes can become a personal fashion statement. One participant described her vape as “slim and […] just my kind of style ”. For others, vaping provided an opportunity to impress with “skills and tricks” they had mastered when exhaling aerosol.

These traits promoted social cachet and helped to offset the perceived stigma that many participants felt as non-smokers who smoked. That stigma, they believed, did not apply to people who switched from smoking to vaping, as one participant explained:

If you make the effort to quit smoking and start steaming, you will gain much more respect for it. […] compared to people who do it just for the sake of it.

The allure of vaping

Apart from psychosocial factors, vapes attracted non-smokers by providing stimulation and involvement. It is not surprising that the wide range of vape liquids that mimic sweets or soft drink flavors has attracted and retained the interest of young adults. Participants also experienced waving clouds as whimsical, and many expressed an almost childlike fascination with the aerosol they exhaled.

Several participants steamed as a way of self-control, to relieve stress or boredom, anxiety or discomfort. A minority have deliberately started steaming to control their weight, using sweet-flavored vape liquids as a substitute for “stress-eating”. The effectiveness of this approach is not clear.

Finally, participants used rationalizations about vapor costs and benefits relative to smoking to justify their vaporization. They believed vapes offer multiple benefits, such as pleasure, connections and social cachet, without the “cost” associated with smoking cigarettes, including financial and long-term health damage as well as unpleasant odor and nausea.

As one participant explained, vaping “does not look nearly as bad as cigarettes […] I feel less guilty about using it ”.

Study limitations and implications

One limitation of our work is that data collection took place before higher-strength “pod” devices such as JUUL and Vuse and disposable vapes such as Fruitia and SOLO entered the market.

Pods and disposables are popular among young people and allow high nicotine concentrations in e-liquids, up to 60mg / ml, without causing a harsh sensation in the mouth and throat. Evidence suggests that the majority (at least 80%) of youth and young adults who smoke currently use nicotine, while a 2019 study suggested that only about a quarter of steaming school students used nicotine.

Read more: A damning review of e-cigarettes shows vaping leads to smoking, the opposite of what supporters claim

This limitation means that our study may not have fully captured the role of nicotine addiction in maintaining vaping.

While recent regulations have curtailed the widespread, aggressive marketing of vaping products, social media promotion nonetheless continues. Vaping products are available at numerous outlets and there are no restrictions on manufacturers or retailers making marketing claims with “less damage”.

Easy access and “lower-risk” marketing messages are likely to normalize vaping and the belief that vaping is a safe activity. Educational efforts aimed at youth, such as the Asthma Foundation’s Don’t Get Sucked In campaign, can help counter ideas that vaping is a low risk.

However, educational campaigns will have a limited impact if products remain widely available and attractive, and social marketing is not a substitute for effective policies. In light of the rapidly increasing youth vaping, it is time to reconsider the widespread availability of vaping products in convenience stores and supermarkets and the use of eye-catching packaging and fragrances that appeal to young people.

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