As I scroll through TikTok, a snippet catches my attention. An indie sleaze song accompanies a video of a beautiful person in a chic outfit, a cigarette casually hanging between their fingers — which are heavily decorated with rings. They take a pleasant drag before blowing the smoke out, gazing mysteriously into the distance through their thick sunglasses as if in a Quentin Tarantino movie scene. They scream “cool,” not only because of their eclectic outfit or “it-girl” body, but also because of the grungy and nonchalant way they inhale a known carcinogen.
These promotional videos for nicotine are nothing short of fascinating. While simultaneously trying to promote a sexy counterculture aesthetic, the user has given the wealthy capitalists of Big Tobacco a free endorsement to further normalize and sell their poisonous product — very, very uncool. How did Gen Z, the generation that was supposed to finally beat nicotine addiction, somehow get roped into this false allure? Additionally, why has our generation seemingly renormalized nicotine addiction, even after anti-smoking initiatives and government education programs have spent millions of dollars warning us about Big Tobacco and their harmful products?
The coronavirus pandemic created a unique national environment with respect to smoking. On the one hand, it incentivized smokers to quit out of fear that smoking may increase the chances of contracting COVID-19 and suffering from long-term health effects, which decreased smoking habits among certain smokers. On the other hand, the stress, boredom and profound isolation that many people experienced during the pandemic led to a simultaneous increase in smoking habits.
According to a study conducted by investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital, Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, “During the pandemic, 32% of respondents increased their smoking, 37% decreased their smoking, and 31% made no change. Those who increased their smoking tended to perceive more stress.” Another study published in the journal the Preventative Medicine found that vaping prevalence during the pandemic specifically increased in people between the ages of 21-24, demonstrating how Gen Z is uniquely being impacted by an uptick in nicotine usage specifically following the pandemic.
In spite of these ads glorifying nicotine, cigarette use is ultimately declining. When anti-tobacco ads and denormalization initiatives attempt to dissuade the public from continuing the use of such a poisonous product, nicotine companies faced a new dilemma; how were they going to continue making massive profits if people knew about the toxicity of their products? They were going to need a drastic rebrand.
That rebrand came in the form of vapes. Unlike the boxy, mature and outdated look of cigarette packages, vapes were designed to look sleek, have vibrant colors and fit discreetly into a pocket or purse, without the offensive effluvium of cigarettes. Who would’ve guessed that children prefer brighter colors to pastels or muted shades?
The flavors of nicotine products also changed dramatically between the era of cigarettes and the era of vaping devices. While cigarettes were previously limited to basic flavors such as menthol or grape, which were frequently overpowered by the pungent taste of burning tobacco, vape juices were designed to be delicious. Bubblegum, mint, blue raspberry, mango and candied flavors galore filled the shelves of smoke shops and gas stations, a strangely kid-oriented marketing tactic for devices that were supposedly designed to help adults “wean off” of cigarettes. This is particularly damning when we see that 97% of youth e-cigarette users prefer flavored vape pods and that 70% of youth say the flavors are a key reason for vaping, demonstrating exactly who these illicit e-cigarette companies are targeting with their fun flavors.
Moreover, the candied scent of the vape juice enabled people (especially youth) to indulge in rule-breaking behavior seemingly unnoticed. Without the discernable smell of stinky cigarettes to help teachers or parents bust young smokers, teens were able to sneak in a few rips of their vape during school with only the consequential quickly-dissipating cloud and the sweet scent of the vapor. Now, smokers didn’t need to pause their work for a 10-minute smoke break that left them smelling like a Vegas casino. Instead, they could secretly vape from the comfort of their very own desk chair, so long as they fanned away the cloud of white vapor. This was the perfect opportunity for young people to abuse nicotine while concealing their habit from authority figures.
Perhaps the most glaring evidence of e-cigarette manufacturers directly targeting adolescents are internal documents from Juul, a large vaping company, that were released by congressional investigators when Juul was sued for illegally targeting teenagers in their marketing. These investigators discovered that “Juul Labs ‘deployed a sophisticated program’ paying schools as much as $10,000 each to let company representatives deliver its message directly to children. In at least one presentation, without teachers or parents present, a company representative showed kids how to use a Juul e-cigarette. Other evidence showed that Juul Labs also targeted preteen kids through summer camps and out-of-school programs.” Though many of the other examples are far less incriminating than this, it is important to understand the careful and methodical ways that these illicit e-cigarette companies have manipulated adolescents into purchasing highly addictive products.
However, e-cigarettes are not cut-and-dry “bad” products in the marketplace. Clifford Douglas, director of the University of Michigan Tobacco Research Network and former tobacco policy advisor to the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health, explained the positive role that e-cigarettes can play in combating adult addiction to combustible nicotine products. “When the FDA authorizes the sale of an e-cigarette, it is based on a very careful and rigorous scientific assessment, where they determine whether that product is ‘appropriate for the protection of public health’ (APPH). If a product passes this test, it means that it’s less of a risk to kids and is potentially beneficial to adults (who are addicted to combustible nicotine products)… Many of (the flavored products young people use) have not been authorized, which is a violation of the law but simply hasn’t been clamped down on.”
Essentially, the Puff Bars, Suorin Drops, Juuls, Hyypes, Flums and other commonly-used vapes that run rampant in teen communities are being sold illegally because they have not been FDA-approved to be sold in the U.S. These illegal vape devices commonly introduce “nicotine-naive” people to nicotine products, serving as a gateway to nicotine addiction. Moreover, a lack of FDA approval means that flavored e-cigarettes could be made up of a mysterious chemical stew, whose ingredients are entirely unregulated by the U.S. government.
To ensure that medically-serving e-cigarette products can remain in the hands of the adults who need them, while simultaneously ensuring that nicotine products stop being introduced to youth, Douglas emphasizes the importance of government regulation. “The FDA has essentially implied that they’re so overwhelmed that they haven’t been able to stop (the sales of illegal vapes). But they haven’t simply made a sweeping statement that ‘You all have to get this out of the market.’”
He also proposes raising taxes on nicotine products to keep these products out of the hands of children. “Of all consumers, kids are the most price-sensitive. We know from decades of research that the most substantial way to quickly reduce the consumption of nicotine products is to raise the price. However, we need to have some differential between cigarette and vaping taxes. You don’t want to accidentally encourage smokers to stick with smoking because e-cigarettes have become too expensive. We want to disincentivize smoking and disincentivize vaping for kids, but to do it in a measured way where we serve all the right purposes.”
The undeniable culpability of illicit e-cigarette companies in Gen Z’s reintroduction to nicotine products is, unfortunately, not the only factor at play. Our very own community members within Gen Z rationalize their use of chemically dangerous nicotine products, some going as far as claiming that vaping is not a health risk. While it is true that vaping is a healthier alternative to smoking combustible nicotine products, nicotine is still highly addictive and harmful to overall health. One way nicotine companies market their product toward the Gen Z audience is by cleverly playing down the long-term health effects of smoking and by attaching antithetical images of smoking to smokers.
For example, many of the social media “it-girls” who post themselves smoking nicotine products have white teeth, supple skin, athletic bodies and other admirable traits (within our white-centered standards of beauty). What these users don’t show is that their nicotine use will eventually wrinkle their skin like a deflated balloon, upset the stomach by causing nausea and diarrhea, decrease the concentration of sugar in the blood (hypoglycemia) which can have drastic long-term effects like diabetes, inhibit the release of dopamine in the body and so on. The long-term effects of vaping are still widely unknown.
It is essential for Gen Z to challenge the idea that vaping is rebellious or ‘countercultural’ when, by using these consumer goods, we are playing right into the hand of Big Tobacco. As Douglas points out, “using combustible smoking products like cigarettes kills 1 in 2 long-term users, and is the leading preventable cause of death. So it’s hardly being rebellious or independent or unique by joining that club.”
Even flavored e-cigarettes are essentially mysterious concoctions of chemicals that are unregulated and illegal according to the FDA, which provide no medical use for society but instead introduces youth to the pipeline of nicotine products. Moreover, we must remember that making the best personal decisions that we can make for ourselves requires us to look at trustworthy information about the harms and risks of smoking nicotine products. Ignoring the statistics that we know to be true simply to indulge in this behavior is a huge disservice to ourselves and may end up causing irreversible damage later in life.
If we can raise taxes on illicit nicotine products, we can similarly deter young people from — who are primarily enabled to buy these products due to their affordability — from starting to abuse these products in the first place. Moreover, policies designed to regulate where selling nicotine products is legal, like outlawing the sale of FDA-unapproved nicotine products outside of 21-and-older retail outlets, would keep these illicit products out of the hands of adolescents while allowing adults who want to quit nicotine access to FDA-approved cessation products. With these proposed policy changes of proper regulation, we can facilitate a healthier environment where nicotine stays out of the hands of teenagers, preventing them from falling down the rabbit hole of nicotine addiction while balancing the needs of adults who are trying to quit.
Sophia Lehrbaum is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at [email protected].