Anyone who has raised teenagers knows that forbidding an activity is a sure way to pique their curiosity. Yet this is the approach American policymakers and activists are using to discourage adolescent nicotine vaping. Shockingly, telling adolescents that youth vaping is an “epidemic” (i.e., all your friends are doing it) — but that it is a risky habit meant only for adults (i.e., it’s cool) — hasn’t worked. In fact, after years of impressive declines in the percentage of youth who reported vaping, the number suddenly spiked in 2018 and rose higher in 2019. As I argue in a new study, youth experimentation with vaping increased not in spite of anti-vaping messaging but because of it. If we want to reduce teen interest in vaping, we shouldn’t give anti-vaping campaigns more money; we should end them.
Many well-meaning public-messaging strategies have failed because they did not account for the rebellion factor. The inclination to rebel against authority is called “reactance” in psychology. People of all ages experience reactance when they perceive a threat to their personal choice, but teenagers yearning for it are far more susceptible. This partly explains why ad campaigns fail to discourage youth drug use, college binge drinking, and littering.
At its height, D.A.R.E., the 1980s-era anti-drug awareness program, was used in 75 percent of American schools and cost the public hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Yet research into the effectiveness of D.A.R.E. found that it did not discourage drug use among adolescents. In fact, it likely made many who went through the program more likely to drink or take drugs. Ditto for the government’s “My Anti-Drug” campaign, a series of youth-centric advertisements encouraging drug abstinence. Again, researchers testing the effectiveness of the campaign found that the more young people were exposed to anti-drug messaging, the less inclined they were to avoid drugs like marijuana.
One reason these campaigns failed is that young people tend to reject statements from authority figures, particularly when the messaging features obviously exaggerated harms intended to scare. Furthermore, the programs made the mistake of acting as advertisements for the very substances and behaviors they tried to discourage.
One of the most famous public-awareness ads is Iron Eyes Cody: the 1971 anti-littering commercial featuring a Native American character, Cody, tearfully surveying a trash-strewn landscape. Iconic as it was, psychologists now believe the ad likely had no effect on viewers’ likelihood to litter and, possibly, increased littering by portraying it as common or normal. In other words, people watching the spot did not identify or sympathize with Cody as much as with the people throwing trash out the car. Instead of learning from these failures, we now repeat the same mistakes in our attempt to discourage youth vaping.
But, in reality, the true scope of the youth vaping “epidemic” is much smaller than people are led to believe. Most (81.4 percent) middle- and high-school students have never vaped, few (13.8 percent) vaped once in the last month, and even fewer (3.6 to 6.8 percent) vaped six or more times in the last month. Moreover, the vast majority of adolescents who report habitual vaping (99.5 percent of them) had previously used other forms of tobacco, primarily combustible cigarettes, so they are probably replacing their smoking with vaping. Another glaring omission: The national survey data tell us how many teens are “vaping” but not what they’re vaping, obscuring the fact that many are likely vaping cannabis, not nicotine.
The oft-ignored good news from national survey data is that youth smoking is at a historic low. In fact, declines in adolescent smoking have accelerated with the increase in youth vaping. Maybe a coincidence, but researchers don’t think so. Data from the U.S. and around the world indicate that, despite initial fears of vaping as a gateway to youth smoking, it is actually a gateway out of smoking, helping many adults, young and old, quit smoking and, possibly, diverting many teens from ever smoking in the first place.
By any objective standard, there is no epidemic of youth nicotine vaping. But the message repeated constantly by government officials, health groups, and the media has convinced many adults there’s a raging epidemic. Likely, it convinced many adolescents as well. Except that while adults hear “epidemic” and consider it a problem to be solved, adolescents may only hear “all of my friends are doing it.”
Since 2015, government agencies and health groups spent billions on posters, television commercials, and online advertisements aimed at discouraging teenagers from vaping. These ads often show young people vaping, even explaining how vapers avoid getting caught. Sometimes the ads insinuate that teens who don’t vape are viewed as “outsiders.” Had such messages come only from authority figures, such as parents, teachers, and health agencies, teenagers might have brushed off the adult world’s panic over youth vaping. But the news media repeated these talking points, amplifying the message and circumventing adolescents’ natural skepticism toward authority figures, likely convincing many young people that a large portion of their peers were indeed vaping and perhaps they should try it, too.
The most recent National Youth Tobacco Survey (compiled annually by the Centers for Disease Control) for the first time asked students why they vaped. The No. 1 reason, by far, was curiosity. Interestingly, this is the same reason British adolescents cite for why they vape. Yet youth vaping in the U.K., which has a vibrant nicotine-vapor market, remains low. Unlike the case in the U.S., messaging from British authorities has focused on providing adult smokers with accurate information about the relative risks of nicotine vaping compared with smoking. And this appears to be working. While only about 3.2 percent of American adults used nicotine vaping products in 2018, over 7 percent of adults in Great Britain currently use e-cigarettes.
The Brits are onto something. Instead of demonizing and criminalizing youth experimentation, we need frank discussion. Health campaigns should provide the public, of all ages, with dispassionate, science-based information. Above all, campaigners must respect personal autonomy. Wishful thinking aside, we cannot force adolescents to do or believe what we think they should. Trying to do so only backfires.