Young non-smokers in New Zealand are taking up vaping more than ever. Here are 5 reasons why

The number of young New Zealanders aged 15-17 vaping daily has tripled in two years, from 2% in 2018-19 to 6% in 2020-21, according to the latest New Zealand Health Survey. Among young adults aged 18 to 24, daily vaping increased from 5% to 15%.

Another national survey of grade 10 students shows that these increases are particularly high for Maori girls. About one in five Maori girls aged 14 to 15 said they vape daily in 2021.

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

While manufacturers claim vapes are lower-risk alternatives for cigarette smokers, many people who vape have never smoked.

If only smokers started vaping, we would expect increases in vaping to be matched by equivalent decreases in smoking. Instead, the growth in daily vaping outpaces the decline in daily smoking.

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

5 factors that push young non-smokers to vape

Manufacturers and promoters of vapes have come under fire for their youth-centric promotions using social media influencers and sponsorship of music events. Some retailers have also circumvented recent laws aimed at preventing young people from being exposed to tempting vaping products and e-liquid flavors.

Regulation of industry activities to prevent youth vaping should remain an important part of policy, research and monitoring. But the personal reasons young non-smokers start vaping could provide additional information and ways to narrow the problem.

Our research, published in the journal PLOS One, is based on in-depth face-to-face interviews with 16 young adults, ages 18-25, who identified themselves as regular vapers (daily to at least twice monthly ). Using a qualitative approach, we identified five factors to explain what prompted these young non-smokers to vape.

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

Two of these factors – connection and belonging, and the balance between social status and stigma – were psychosocial in nature. Vaping is a highly social activity, mostly taking place in shared apartments or at parties. Being part of a peer group where a vaper was spinning helped strengthen relationships through a collective experience.

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

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

These attributes promoted social cachet and helped offset the perceived stigma that many participants felt as non-smokers who vaped. According to them, this stigma did not apply to people who had switched from smoking to vaping, as one participant explained:

If you make the effort to quit smoking and vaping, you get a lot more respect for it. […] compared to people who just do it for fun.

The lure of vaping

In addition to psychosocial factors, vapers appealed to non-smokers by providing stimulation and engagement. Unsurprisingly, the wide variety of vaping liquids that mimic the flavors of candies or soft drinks has caught and kept the interest of young adults. Participants also felt that blowing clouds was fanciful, and many expressed an almost childlike fascination with the aerosol they were exhaling.

Several participants vaped as a means of self-management, to relieve stress or boredom, anxiety or clumsiness. A minority have started vaping intentionally to manage their weight, using sweet-tasting vaping liquids as a replacement for “stress eating”. The effectiveness of this approach is unclear.

Finally, participants used rationalizations about the costs and benefits of vaping versus smoking to justify their vaping. They believed that vapes offered multiple benefits, such as pleasure, relationships, and social cachet, without the “costs” they associated with smoking, including financial and long-term health damage as well as unpleasant odors and nausea.

As one participant explained, vaping “doesn’t seem as bad as cigarettes […] I feel less guilty for using it”.

Study limitations and implications

One of the limitations of our work is that the data collection took place before the entry into the market of more powerful “pod” devices such as JUUL and Vuse and disposable vapes such as Fruitia and SOLO.

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

Read more: Damning review of e-cigarettes shows vaping leads to smoking, the opposite of what proponents claim

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

Although recent regulations have limited the widespread and aggressive marketing of vaping products, social media promotion continues nonetheless. Vaping products are available at many outlets and there are no restrictions on manufacturers or retailers making “harm reduction” marketing claims.

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

However, education campaigns will have limited impact if products remain widely available and attractive, and if social marketing does not replace effective policy. In light of the rapid increase in youth vaping, it’s time to reconsider the widespread availability of vaping products in convenience stores and supermarkets and the use of eye-catching packaging and flavors that appeal to young people.

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