The topic that seems to be on everybody's lips right now, is the vaping crisis that is sweeping across our youth. This has been a hot topic for some time now and the rates of young people who have not just tried vaping, but vape consistently, has increased exponentially over the past 5 years. I aptly deem this a crisis as it affects youth on multiple fronts. The latest data also now shows that vaping has entered even our primary schools, which is of utmost concern! The biggest question I wanted to answer on this issue, is why are our youth so drawn to vaping? Vaping itself is a symptom of a deeper issue, that if corrected may help us move back in the right direction.
Lets explore three key reasons why I believe there has been such an increase in youth vaping and what parents and teachers can do to combat each of them
Reason One - They Don't Believe It's Harmful
In 2017, I found myself in an interview process for a territory manager role for one of the major tobacco companies. Whilst I was pretty desperate for a job at the time and the package on offer was very attractive, I had a moral conundrum to wrestle with. Did I want to help facilitate the sale of products that were harmful to people's health? I remember in the process I was introduced to the idea of e cigarettes and was told that this was the direction the company was going in now as it provided a safe way for smokers to quit. These products were going to be what the company now prioritised as it didn't have the harmful effects that traditional cigarettes had. Looking back now I am thankful I didn't take that role.
This narrative that vaping is somehow healthier or isn't harmful is a myth. Your lungs are designed to inhale oxygen and any other inhalant is generally not a good idea. Vapes contain a highly toxic combination of formaldehyde and acrolein which are used in building products such as glues and lacquer. Each is toxic in its own right, but research has shown that when combined together in an aerosol its effects are increasingly more harmful and causes irreversible lung damage. Vapes also contain propylene glycol which is harmful to human cells when inhaled. Last but not least, vapes contain nicotine, which is a highly addictive drug that causes serious harm to a young persons still developing brain. Nicotine affects areas of the brain that are responsible for controlling mood and behavioural control, learning and attention. All of which are causing issues for teachers and parents alike. It is also alarming to note that even vapes sold under the guise of being nicotine free are often found to still be containing nicotine, which is allowing youth to develop nicotine addictions without even realising it.
Why are youth so much more susceptible to developing an addiction? Young brains are still developing and growing, which means they develop neural pathways a lot quicker than a fully developed brain. This works well for learning in school environments, but it also means that if an addictive substance is introduced the neural pathways connecting the substance and the "hit" that comes from it, develop a lot faster than in an adult brain.
So what can we do to combat this? Education is key. I thought it would be common sense that anything other than oxygen inhaled into your lungs would be bad for you, but it seems that our youth are unaware of the dangers. When having conversations with youth, it needs to come from a place of love and a place of care for their future and their safety. People don't care what you know until they know that you care, so make this a first priority.
Reason Two - They Are Being Specifically Marketed Too
The Australian Government has done a lot to try and crack down on the sale and use of vapes, however is it too little too late? Are the changes going to be effective? Let's go back to when vapes first started to hit the scene. They were specifically marketed to young people through a combination of deceptive social media marketing and the sponsoring of events and music festivals. In 2015 one such company spent more than $1 million dollars on social media advertising for their products.
Vapes became so popular with youth because they spend their lives on social media and they were seeing images of celebrities, rap stars and influencers vaping and started to correlate fame and fortune with vaping. When you add to this the litany of flavours and colourful designs that are available on the market, it's no wonder youth were so enticed. It is in some ways comparable to the introduction of pre mixed drinks to alcohol stores. The bright colours and sweet taste often hide the fact that you are still drinking a poison. Yes the smoke may taste like the rainbow, but it doesn't stop it from being poisonous.
Will these new reforms curb vaping? The verdict is still out on that one, as whilst the reforms crack down on physical stores, there are still countless online retailers that are allowing the e juices to be imported and sold through into our school environments.
What can we to combat this marketing? Show youth the truth of these celebrities and influencers lives. That the majority are actually miserable. That the only reason they are even using these products is to try and manage the crushing weight of hopelessness they so often feel. Which leads into the final reason.
Reason Three - They Are Using It To Numb Themselves
This is a key reason that youth use drugs of any description. When youth don't know how to manage or process their emotions, they opt to simply turn them off. One of the easiest ways to disconnect from our emotions is through drugs. This is neither helpful, nor healthy, but when we recognise that the use is a symptom of a deeper issue, it changes how we approach the behaviour. We unfortunately live in a world where a lot of youth are deeply troubled and deeply hurting. Our answer to the problem of curbing vaping, therefore needs to include assisting youth with actually feeling again.
There seems to be a common misconception in todays age that being numb means you're ok, when in actual fact it means that you're more hurt than you think you are. There is a difference between surviving and thriving. Too many teenagers and adults alike, are living life in survival mode, avoiding any uncomfortable feelings and just trying to make it through the day. That's no way to live. To effectively give teenagers permission to feel again, we need to create safe spaces for them to do so, where there is no shame or condemnation applied, but simply love. The issue with being numb, is that whilst it turns off the less desirable emotions, it also prevents us from experiencing joy, connection, laughter and friendship.
What can parents and teachers do to help create spaces for youth to process their emotions in healthier ways? The first thing is to show genuine care for youth and what's going on in their life. Find out what they're passionate about and ask them about it. Look to plug youth into community clubs at school, wether it be a breakfast club, lunch club, fitness club etc, or even a youth group or sporting team. We learn to manage our emotions through interacting with others, not by isolating. The more connected youth are with a real life community and the more they feel that life has purpose and meaning, the less likely they are to turn to unhealthy behaviours like vaping
If you are struggling with a vaping addiction, please reach out to a medical professional or contact the WA Quitline on 137 848