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College students in Bellingham prone to purchasing e-cigarettes due to social restrictions, strategic marketing

A Western student exhales mint-flavored e-cigarette juice on Feb. 25, 2021. Tasty nicotine flavors can attract young adults to purchase an e-cigarette, especially during the restrictions of the pandemic. // Photo by Georgia Costa

By Georgia Costa

While a study done by the Journal of the American Medical Association Network shows a nationwide reduction in electronic cigarette usage among 13 to 24-year-olds, strategic marketing and COVID-19’s social restrictions are making it hard for some local Bellingham residents to quit.  

Kyra Asher, a 20-year-old second-year behavioral neuroscience major at Western Washington University, said she has seen an increase in her friends purchasing e-cigarettes since the most recent lockdown restrictions

“Nearly everyone I know has an [e-cigarette],” Asher said.

She has been using nicotine routinely since age 15 and has failed multiple attempts to quit even after her e-cigarette broke in November 2020. 

“I was supposed to quit. Having so many friends with e-cigarettes, I’ve been hitting their [e-cigarettes] when I see them,” Asher said. “[My friends] always say yes.”

Stanford University professor of pediatrics Dr. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, researches the vaping epidemic among youth. The e-cigarette company JUUL has faced scrutiny in the past for marketing their product towards young people and spreading misinformation about the health effects of vaping, Halpern-Felsher said. 

“Young people are drawn to them because they’re cool,” Halpern-Felsher said. 

Originally, e-cigarettes were designed to reduce adult dependency on nicotine, Halpern-Felsher said, but they have become popular among teens and young adults. One-time disposable e-cigarettes in particular are appealing to young people because they’re cheap, obtainable and aesthetically pleasing, Halper-Felsher said.

When JUUL stopped distributing flavors like mint and fruit, e-cigarette users found a loophole in the FDA ban on flavors and started purchasing disposable e-cigarettes like the Puff Bar, which includes multiple appealing flavors, Halpern-Felsher said. 

Asher has seen this trend play out among her friends. 

When isolated due to COVID-19 restrictions, Asher said young people may turn to nicotine to cure boredom because they view it as a less harmful substance than alcohol. 

Jacelyn Unger, the Alcohol and Drug Clinical Advisory Service assistant risk reduction specialist at Western, said extra free time or a desire for stress relief can be a factor in increased substance abuse.

“It’s really hard when [vaping] is the norm and it’s around you all the time,” Asher said.

Peer influence and the normalization of nicotine in the youth community also tend to be huge pulls to try out a new nicotine product, Unger said.

“Generation Z youth” have been directly targeted by e-cigarette companies with flavorful, odorless e-cigarettes because it’s easy to get a “quick nicotine buzz” without the fear of parents or peers smelling it, Unger said.

Asher finds the feeling associated with and the flavor of e-cigarettes more appealing than traditional cigarettes.

“We need to regulate these companies and not let misinformation be spread throughout our market,” Halpern-Felsher said.

Asher said she’s aware of the manipulation of college-aged students by e-cigarette companies but doesn’t intend to quit in the near future.

Resources for those interested in halting nicotine usage can be found in Halpern-Felsher’s Tobacco Prevention Toolkit.

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