By Douglas Stellato Kabat, LCSW
About the author: Mr. Kabat is a former Director of Smoking Cessation for the New York State Lung Association, and an addiction specialist with 40+ years of experience.
In March 2020 schools closed all over the US, and teens were suddenly at home and under the supervision of parents. Teens are extraordinarily social, so the loss the in-person contact in schools and diverse other social settings, has been profound. Suddenly all the healthy outlets teens use to manage their lives – spending time with friends, shopping, sports, or engaging on other healthy behaviors, disappeared. Furthermore, many teens were also out of part-time work, which meant the little money they earned that once boosted their sense of independence was gone, too. (Carrns, 2020)
What has this meant for teen vaping?
Prior to the shutdown due to Covid-19 we were facing what has been labeled an “epidemic” of teen vaping: One in three high school students said they vaped in 2019, according to the annual (CDC, 2019)), and the number of middle-schoolers who reported using vaping products was also rising.
Suddenly these vaping students were cut-off from friends, social environments of all kinds, and the opportunity to purchase or share vaping products. For some teens, this may mean the “desire” to vape will be overwhelming due to nicotine craving from a well-established vape habit; for others it may mean giving up an expensive behavior that is suddenly less relevant to their lives. We have no survey data on the impact of the pandemic on teen vape use. All the data we have is based on surveys taken before schools closed and teens began “sheltering in place” under the (theoretical) supervision of their parents.
The closest approximation to use rates may be the purchase of test kits by parents concerned about teen vaping and smoking. Amazon purchase patterns of nicotine test kits show a decline of 53% in purchases for the period of March 11, 2020 to June 11, 2020 versus the earlier pre-Covid-19 period of December 11, 2019 to March 11, 2020. Of course, all sorts of factors may go into this decline, but its not unreasonable to assume that teens under close supervision and mostly staying at home, are less likely to vape or smoke. This chart shows the decline in purchases of nicotine test kits:
It is essential to remember that teen vaping is a social phenomenon. (James Tsai, et al., 2018)I t’s a group activity;
- It involves the use of various flavored products;
- It’s a secretive, risk-taking behavior, promoting a rebellious sense of individuality;
- It provides an opportunity to demonstrate vape related skills, such as diverse ways to vape, demonstrating not only one’s competence as a skilled user, but also one’s sophistication in a secret teen world.
- Adult policing actions create more excitement, as forbidden acts tend to be highly valued.
- Adult attempts to demonize vaping by citing purported medical dangers primarily drawn from date on cigarette smoking, lead to teens’ doubting the honesty and integrity of adult authorities and focusing on alternative medical/scientific reports which question the danger of vaping and reinforce it as a relatively safe activity.
Under a “lockdown” many of these social aspects of vaping have withered. Certainly vaping in social situations, such as school restrooms and other teen “hang-out” spots, has most likely declined. Its reasonable to conclude that parents are less worried about vaping, but actual use may not have declined all that much.
Vape stores have stayed open during business shutdowns (Ruoff, 2020) while most other retailers shut down as they have been regarded as essential services. Vape stores have been treated the same as liquor stores, beer outlets and supermarkets. As a result, the potential supply of vapes for teens has not declined, but the ability of teens to visit vape stores, the money they need to buy vapes, and social situations that encourage vape use have all declined.
All this will change when schools reopen. Suddenly kids will hang out together. Once again peer pressure will encourage unhealthy and risky behaviors. The pressure to be popular, to stand out, to be one of the gang, will be intense. And for many the relief and pleasure nicotine provides will be a welcome relief from anxiety and the normal pressure of teen life. So vaping will be back. And, if we’re not careful, our failed approach of policing students will once again result in little success. Vape detectors in restrooms are often defeated by students and result in harassed administrators trying to chase down student offenders, who if caught are then sanctioned and referred to substance abuse treatment professionals and agencies. (ZETINO, 2019) If this sounds familiar, it is since it’s the failed war-on-drugs policy we use for the past fifty years. The policing approach is likely to result in the same kind of failure that we’ve seen with program such as DARE, a well-intentioned program that has been failure in reducing student drug use. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education, 2020)
If schools haven’t done much, what can parents do?
Here a bunch of tried and true methods to reduce teen vape use:
- Set a good example: if you or other family members smoke or vape it is tough to tell kids not to. Parental and family examples are powerful in every area of like, including tobacco use. This applies even if the family member is not in the home, such as a grown sibling, or is a grandparent, aunt, uncle, or ex-spouse. Of course, you can’t control other people, but you can remind them that they are a powerful example for children. If family members stop smoking or vaping, this can dramatically reduce the chances your child will vape.(Office of Adolescent Health, 2019)
- Be loving to your teen: this has been a difficult time for teens, who are extremely social and have been deprived of many routine social outlets. What does it mean to be loving? Here are some examples:
- Be generous with praise. Recognize all the good things your son or daughter does.
- Reward all positive behavior with a thank you or other recognition.
- Make sure your teen gets the foods he or she likes.
- Have as many meals together as possible.
- Make sure your teen gets enough sleep.
- Avoid criticism as much as possible: remember that it takes ten positive comments to make up for one negative comment.
- Hang out with your teen, watching TV, going for walks, doing whatever your teen wants to do with you.
- Text with your teen – it’s a way they like to talk.
- Develop rewards for success and good behavior jointly with your teen, so they feel acknowledged and valued.
- When you worry about teen vape use, or other problems have a chat with the teen’s pediatrician. (The American Academy of Pediatrics I, 2015)Your teen’s doctor can be a powerful ally. He or she can often have confidential talks with your teen. Your teen’s doctor can also test for nicotine and have a private conversation with your teen about tobacco use. You can ask your teen’s doctor to do this, recognizing that you won’t and should not be privy to the test results and conversation. The doctor-patient relationship is a powerful tool for health, so use it to help your teen.
- Talk with other parents about vaping and how they have deal or are dealing with it. This can be a powerful way encouraging other parents to be “on the same page with you regarding vaping” so all the teens in your social circle get the same message. You will also learn new things about how other parents address typical teen misbehavior.
- Have confidence in your teen. Most teenagers turn into healthy adults, so expect the same will happen for your difficult seventeen-year-old. (Sarah Kliff, 2016) Remember your own misbehavior as a teen – your probably did a lot of things you now regret – but you still turned out OK, so your teen will likely urn out OK as well.
- Keep at it. Stick to helping your teen. In the long run it will turn out well.