Rebellious Teens and Their E-Cigarettes

California wants to cut down on teenage vaping. The best way to do that is not by telling teens to stop.
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California wants to cut down on teenage vaping. The best way to do that is not by telling teens to stop.
(Photo: TBEC Review)

(Photo: TBEC Review)

Always quick to adopt new technologies, minors and young adults are the fastest growing group of e-cigarette users in California. Now, the Department of Public Health is launching an educational campaign in hopes of cracking down on the use of the devices, the Los Angeles Times reported on Wednesday.

The battery-operated cigarettes heat up and aerosolize a nicotine-laced liquid, which in theory allows users to inhale significantly fewer toxic chemicals than traditional tobacco smoke. While the science is still out on whether e-cigarettes are any safer, they are certainly faring better than their paper counterparts, at least among teens. International Business Times lays out the numbers:

According to data released Tuesday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, alcohol and cigarette use among teenagers have been falling for decades and are now at their lowest points since the study of about 50,000 students in 400 schools began in 1975.... At the same time, nearly 9 percent of eighth-graders, 16 percent of 10th-graders and 17 percent of high school seniors said they had inhaled an e-cigarette or “vaped” in the past month, while 4 percent of eighth-graders, 7 percent of 10th-graders and 14 percent of high school seniors said they had smoked a traditional cigarette.

Considering how hard it is to quit smoking once addiction sets in, it makes sense for anti-smoking campaigns to target the young. (And e-cigarette companies certainly seem to be targeting children with flavors like chocolate, cheesecake, and gummy bear.) But evidence from the long war on Big Tobacco—and common sense, since we've all been teenagers—suggests that telling teens not to do something usually doesn’t work.

The more young students are exposed to anti-smoking messaging, the more likely they are to want to smoke, according to a growing body of research. A 2007 survey of 1,687 middle schoolers by Hye-Jin Paek at the University of Georgia and Albert Gunther at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that adolescent inclinations toward rebelliousness—and the fact that smoking serves as a symbol of that rebelliousness—may at least partially explain this. And it’s a phenomenon that tobacco companies may have even taken advantage of in their own advertisements.

 The most effective anti-smoking messaging, the 2007 study found, wasn’t targeted directly at individuals (“just say no”), but rather aimed to change the social norms associated with smoking: If young adults don’t think their peers are smoking, they’re less likely to pick up the habit. The Truth anti-tobacco campaign, for example, emphasizes the declining rates of smoking among teens. These are important lessons for anti-vaping campaigns, especially since in 2014 e-cigarette use among teens surpassed traditional cigarette use for the first time.