Written by Justin Choung
At NYU and other schools across the country, vaping is a common sight: in the park, bathrooms, dorm rooms, outside university buildings, and in the streets. The prevalence of what some health experts have called an epidemic raises questions of why and how students and other young people vape, especially given all the laws, rules, parents, and health professionals trying to stop them.
A CDC report in 2016 found that there were three main reasons why students started vaping: because a friend used them, the availability of flavors, and the belief that vaping is less harmful than regular cigarettes. These reasons encapsulate why Abel, a sophomore at NYU, started vaping. Abel says that while he tried cigarettes before and found them “disgusting,” he first tried vaping after a friend offered him a popular vape product called a Juul. Abel mentioned that he was drawn by the fruity flavors and began to vape regularly.
Despite the litany of laws and rules in place meant to stop young adults from getting vape products, determined students still find ways to get access rather easily. There are a number of ways students in the city can buy vape products despite New York’s prohibition on people under 21 making such purchases. Fake IDs are one common strategy used by college students across the country, with even online websites offering scannable, customized IDs. Younger students can also ask older friends to buy these products for them. In addition, there are some stores in the city that are known to not ID customers.
While students undoubtedly have both incentives and access to vape products, the question remains why they vape given the warnings of health professionals and parents about the health effects of vaping. By now, most students will have listened to the lectures of their parents, advice from their doctors, lessons from health teachers, and commercials on television about the risks of vaping. Despite all of those warnings, about one out of every five young adults vapes regularly, according to a 2019 Gallup poll.
When asked about his awareness of the risks of vaping, Abel acknowledges the dangers but claims that vaping is less dangerous than smoking and that he plans on quitting soon. He says, “I get that it might mess up my lungs and all, but it annoys me when people exaggerate it to be some instant killer that’s worse than smoking. Besides, I plan on stopping in a few months before it does too much damage.” Abel’s sentiments seem to be common among young people, many of whom believe that vape products are less dangerous than cigarettes and that the rhetoric surrounding e-cigarettes is overblown. This shouldn’t come across as a surprise; young adults are already warned about everything from texting while driving to drug use to safe sex, warnings that continue to be given because young adults continue to engage in such practices despite what they are told. As for Abel, it remains to be seen whether or not he will quit vaping. His first attempt at quitting was one year ago: he restarted after a month.
It should be noted that a number of vape users start vaping as a way to quit smoking regular cigarettes. There are a number of studies that have shown e-cigarette use may help with smoking cessation. A recent study by Britain’s National Health Service found that vaping was more effective than other nicotine products such as patches and gums in helping smokers quit. However, scientific opinions on the effectiveness of vaping for smoking cessation are mixed; a 2019 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 82% of smokers who started vaping failed to quit smoking. As for the health risks of vaping compared to traditional cigarettes, there is significant evidence that the chemicals in vape products are less dangerous than those found in cigarettes. However, the science on vaping is still relatively new, and there is still no consensus on the long-term health effects or overall addictiveness of vaping in relation to traditional cigarettes.