The final blow: vaping addiction in adolescence


Sofia Cole and Sarah Al-Jawhar

Vaping has become something that more teens are turning to, as 14.1 percent of high school students said they recently used an e-cigarette or other vape product, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration’s 2022 National Youth Tobacco Survey reported. 

These statistics reflect the consequences of youth-targeted and scientifically inaccurate marketing, Psychology Teacher Sejal Schullo said. When vaping initially began gaining popularity, it was advertised as an improved, healthier substitute for smoking, labeled as “smoking evolved”, Schullo elaborated.

“[Advertisements] were sending this light message that [vaping] is the new, better [alternative to smoking],” Schullo said. “The average person is not a good enough critical thinker to [think], ‘This seems too easy of a solution to break something as rough and tough as a nicotine addiction.’” 

With fruity flavors, bright colors, and young, attractive models using nicotine products, vaping companies target younger audiences in these advertisements, Schullo explained. 

“The flavors made it seem like it was candy,” Schullo said. “It did not taste [or smell] bad, [so it appealed to] young people whose risk-reward abilities are not fully developed. They can not see the long-term consequences of their actions.”

One company that used these marketing strategies to target youth was Juul Labs, an American electronic cigarette company, stated. In Feb. 2020, Maura Healey’s, Massachusetts Attorney General, office sued Juul Labs for intentionally targeting and selling its electronic cigarettes to younger age groups, Shelia Kaplan wrote for The New York Times. The lawsuit stated that Juul Labs also paid to place digital promotions across websites, specifically ones that they knew would have an influx of high school student visits. Dr. Robert Jackler, a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, explained to The New York Times that Juul Labs was purposely trying to take advantage of adolescents and get them hooked on their products. 

“It adds to the compelling body of evidence that the viral uptake of Juul among youth was neither unanticipated nor unintentional as the company maintains, but rather a result of a comprehensive and purposeful effort by the company to recruit underage users,” Jackler stated in The New York Times.

From mood changes to withdrawal symptoms, vaping takes an immense toll on the human body and brain, Schullo explained. The addictive properties of nicotine in a vape can alter brain chemistry and lead to physical symptoms, such as an increased heart rate or reduced appetite. Over time, this results in both physical and psychological dependence, instituting a cycle of addiction and withdrawal, Schullo said.

“We’ve known smoking is bad for you, and yet smokers still smoke, right?” Schullo said. “Addiction is not a choice. It is a biological change in the brain that is very difficult to overcome. It is not impossible [to quit], but it is difficult.”

Most teens are not aware of the fine print embedded in a vape, Schullo said. In addition, there also is not as much evidence regarding the long-term consequences of vaping like there is for smoking, she noted.

“[Vaping devices] have a lot of synthetic [chemicals] in the cartridges besides just nicotine that we do not have the research on yet because we have not had it around long enough,” Schullo said. 

Sophomore Row Seitz emphasized the dangers of vaping that she has witnessed among her friends. She noted that many people start vaping casually but, before they know it, are addicted.

“[Vaping becomes a serious] problem when you notice that you [are starting to think], ‘Why do I get so out of breath when I run?’ or ‘Why do I go crazy when I can not find my vape?’” Seitz said. “You rely on it, but it also destroys your body.”

In addition to the many physical consequences on the body, vaping can take an immense toll on teenagers’ brains, Madeline Munar, Brain Studies Teacher, explained. On a cellular level, long-term usage of nicotine can cause neurons to become less sensitive to natural levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, Munar said. 

“This [effect] can cause the user to seek out the drug in hopes of recreating the surge of neurotransmitters associated with using the drug,” Munar said. “The long-term consequences on the brain include depression, anxiety, or worsening an existing mental health condition.”

Classes such as Brain Studies discuss the science behind addiction in their curriculum, raising awareness of the short and long-term consequences, Munar explained. 

“In Brain Studies, we really focus on how different drugs can affect dopamine levels in the brain and how that can lead to unnatural levels of dopamine in the reward pathway, causing the feeling of a ‘high’,” Munar said.

Many studies show that teen brains are highly sensitive to the effects of the reward pathway, which can lead to risky behavior, Munar noted. Since teenage frontal lobes are not fully developed, many decisions are made using the limbic, or emotional, system, she explained.

“Because of these ongoing changes in the brain as it continues to develop in the teen years, teenagers are more susceptible to addiction,” Munar said. “Quitting can also be much harder for teenagers since drugs interact with the reward pathway.”

Vaping can also impact relationships between peers, senior Luke Gamber explained. Even if they do not vape themselves, many teens find themselves surrounded by others who do, which can affect how one views those friendships, Gamber said.

“[Being around friends who vaped] made me uncomfortable and reconsider some of my friendships,” Gamber said. “It was more than just the physical effects.”

Most people were not aware of the side effects of vaping when they first got involved with it, Gamber explained. In fact, most teens had heard that it was a safer alternative to smoking and assumed that to be true, Gamber said.

“The words ‘safer than’ turned into ‘safe’,” Gamber said.