What makes e-cigarettes cool?

Adolescents and the urge to vape.

Gregory Nemec

Gregory Nemec

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Cigarette use among adolescents has been on the decline for the last two decades—but don’t celebrate just yet. The e-cigarette is here. These battery-powered devices heat up a witch’s brew of liquids—often including nicotine—in order to produce an inhalable vapor, and it appears their use is rising among middle- and high-schoolers. “It’s almost unbelievable how fast e-cigarettes have taken off,” says Suchitra Krishnan-Sarin, an associate professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine. She’s looking at their use and why they “have such an appeal”—and a “coolness factor.”

The federal National Youth Tobacco Survey reported that e-cigarette use by students in grades 6 through 12 more than doubled during 2011 and 2012, increasing from 3.3 percent to 6.8 percent. To find out why, Krishnan-Sarin and her colleagues at Yale’s Center for Nicotine and Tobacco Use Research conducted 18 focus groups with adolescents and young adults in Connecticut, from November 2012 to April 2013. They found that one attraction is flavoring in the e-liquids, which can be made to taste like piña coladas, bubble gum, cigars, espresso, cherry cordial, or virtually anything else. But an especially compelling lure is the smoke or “vape” tricks one can perform with the vapor— as demonstrated in many videos posted online. The researchers then surveyed nearly 5,000 Connecticut adolescents and found that more than a quarter of those in high school had “vaped.” Between a quarter and a third of all students said they’d like to try it. (Both studies are online in Nicotine and Tobacco Research.)

It’s understandable, says Krishnan-Sarin: when she was young, she found Greta Garbo’s smoke tricks in old black-and-white movies captivating. But she urges adolescents to stay as far away from e-cigarettes as they should from tobacco products. “We don’t have long-term use data, so people, especially young people, need to play it safe.”

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