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;
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:
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