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Not your mother’s smoking addiction: is it?

by Haley Barefoot, 2018-2019 National Health Corps Member

· health,social norms,vaping,nicotine,tobacco prevention

Growing up, my mother was a smoker and I hated it.

We were taught in school how bad cigarettes are for your health, so whenever she bought cigarettes I called them her “death sticks” or “cancer sticks.” I asked her once why she started smoking since she knew it was bad for her health. She told me that she thought it was cool as a teenager and by the time she realized it wasn’t, it was too late. My mother eventually quit, but it was a long, hard battle for her after being addicted for so many years. I guess I was lucky to grow up during a time where for every person that told me “smoking is cool,” there were five others telling me, “I would rather not have cancer, thanks.” During my lifetime, teen smoking rates dramatically decreased from 19% of 12thgraders smoking daily in 1994 to only 5.5% in 2015.1But, just when it seemed like we could stop teen smoking for good, a new technology came out. 

The first time I saw a Juul, I thought someone was pulling out a stick of gum. When I found out it was something you smoked, I couldn’t believe it. This didn’t look anything like the “death sticks” my mother used to smoke. What I was seeing was a tobacco product in a whole new package for a whole new generation. Suddenly, smoking was cool again. The same appeal that got my mother addicted so many years ago was back in a new form, but this time the peer pressure was fueled by social media. Juul memes were inescapable and they were and still are working as free advertisement to youth. In 2011, the percentage of high schoolers using e-cigarettes was 1.5% and by 2015 that number had increased to 16%.2The FDA has called the amount of youth smoking e-cigarettes an epidemic and is taking measures to address it.

Public health campaigns and tobacco regulations may have reduced the number of teens smoking traditional cigarettes, but the battle to stop teen smoking is far from over. The invention of vaping products has changed the playing field, but the game is still the same- to stop youth from becoming addicted to nicotine and suffering the negative health effects that follow. We need to send a clear and consistent message that vaping products, including the popular JUUL, do contain nicotine and are harmful, especially for youth. These nicotine products should be seen for what they really are: potentially a new-age “death stick”.

1. Johnston, L. D., Miech, R. A., O'Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., Schulenberg, J. E. & Patrick, M.E. (2018). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975-2017: Overview, key findings on adolescent drug use. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan.

2. Singh, T., Arrazola, R. A., Corey, C. G., et al. (2016). Tobacco Use Among Middle and High School Students — United States, 2011–2015. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 65(14), 361–367.