Illustration by Rose Collins

*This article contains references to suicide and self harm.

First, a cigarette alternative. Then, a trend. Now, a known health risk. Vaping has skyrocketed among high school and college students in recent years.

“I fall asleep holding my vape. I wake up holding my vape. I take it everywhere,” said 27-year-old Santa Cruz resident Lindsey Wilder. “I literally vape from the time I wake up until I go to bed.” 

Wilder goes through 1.5 milliliters of vape juice every day, which contains the same amount of nicotine as two packs of cigarettes.

Across 49 states, there have been 1,604 reported lung injury cases associated with the use of both electronic cigarettes and their THC-based analogues as of Oct. 22, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

San Francisco became the first city to ban the sale and distribution of e-cigarettes in June after the federal government refused to hold e-cigarette companies to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines. The law will go into effect in January 2020. 

Vapes emit chemicals, artificial flavors and nicotine that are heated and converted into vapor. To appeal to young consumers, these battery-operated devices contain various and familiar sweet flavors like cotton candy, bubble gum and vanilla.

“We are seeing an increasing number of students that are using e-cigarettes with such frequency (8-10 times per hour) that are really struggling to moderate their use, let alone quit,” said Meg Kobe, Director of UC Santa Cruz’s Student Health Outreach & Promotion (SHOP), in an email. “These students seeking support for their e-cigarette use has increased steadily over the past 3-4 years.”

Vape sales in the U.S. have increased from 2.2 million JUUL devices in 2016 to 16.2 million in 2017. According to the U.S. Department of Health, in 2018, one in five high school students reported e-cigarette use in the past month.

While many people start vaping as an alternative to cigarettes, e-cigarettes are just as, if not more, addictive. And because vaping is marketed as trendy, young people who have never smoked cigarettes pick up the habit.

“I decided to start vaping because I discovered an entire subculture to it and wanted to immerse myself,” said UCSC student Morgan Kim, in an email.

Social pressures play into the addictive quality of vapes. As use increases, so does access. Peer pressure isn’t always overt, and in the case of vapes, easy access to nicotine can lead people to begin vaping.

Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik invented the e-cigarette in 2003. Since vaping has only been around for 16 years, the exact health risks are unknown, Kobe said in an  email. 

The two main ingredients in e-juice are vegetable glycerin and propylene glycol, both of which are linked to inflammation of the lungs. E-cigarettes are also found to have fine particulates, chemicals and flavorings which have potentially adverse health effects. Some  THC vapes and black market JUUL pods contain vitamin E acetate, an oil derived from vitamin E, linked to cases of severe pulmonary disease. 

Blu eCigs and JUUL sponsor festivals popular among teens, such as Sasquatch!, Sundance Film Festival and Coachella, exemplifying the market’s focus on young consumers. 

Several e-cigarette companies such as Slick Vapes, SmokeTastic and DaVinci Vaporizer administer online essay-writing contests exploring the potential benefits of vaping instead of smoking tobacco. Winners receive scholarship rewards, ranging from $250 to $5,000. E-cigarette company names then appear on college websites for students and teens to explore. 

Vaping appeals to young people who, as well as being susceptible to targeted advertising, experience unprecedented levels of anxiety. For many, nicotine is a way to cope with everyday stressors.

“I use [my vape] as a comfort tool,” said Santa Cruz resident Lindsey Wilder. “[…] I use it as anxiety relief, which is really good for me because in the past I’ve struggled with maladaptive behavior such as self-harm. I struggled with anorexia for nine years, suicidal ideation and stuff like that. All that stuff is okay right now and I’m not necessarily saying it’s the vaping, but if I do feel like I want to self harm, sometimes I can just grab the vape instead.”

In response to public pressure and in the face of recent medical cases, JUUL has changed its advertising to stop targeting teenagers. Amid the controversy, JUUL’s CEO, Kevin Burns, has stepped down. 

While nicotine may provide relief from anxiety, it’s not a sustainable solution. Serious health complications arise with addictions and dependencies that follow. 

“I will always discourage people from vaping,” Wilder said. “It’s a habit that nobody needs to pick up.”

Students looking for support quitting or moderating their use of e-cigarettes can reach out to SHOP at the Student Health Center.

Additional reporting by Elena Neale