MORGANTOWN, WV - 26 AUGUST 2018: Juul e-cigarette or nicotine vapor stick and JUULpods in pencil case on school backpack

Youth vaping could return in pre-pandemic numbers. The vaping epidemic could also make a return as a way to deal with anxiety, stress and depression.

Kids are back in school, many for the first time in nearly 18 months. While this return is welcome for both kids and families, it is also a return to in-person social interactions, academic pressure and a myriad of other stressors. All of these can have an impact on student mental health, which makes e-cigarette and nicotine addiction a concern for parents, educators and community health advocates alike. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic closed school doors from in-person learning last year, youth e-cigarette use was a huge problem. According to a recent study, 3.6 million kids were using e-cigarettes, including 1 in 5 high school students. We could see a resurgence in those numbers both because of peer pressure and because the flavored e-cigarettes that kids like are still widely available. 

The Center for Prevention highlighted the stories of some of these youth in a mini-documentary called “The State We’re In: Teen Vaping” where youth from both the Twin Cities metro where youth from the Twin Cities metro share stories about vaping and how easy it was for them to become addicted to what they thought was harmless flavored water vapor.

“For me, it was that feeling of being cool to older kids,” said Will, who started vaping at age 14.

Anxiety, depression and stress may also make students reach for e-cigarettes. “I could finish a [JUUL] pod in less than 12 hours. If I was really anxious or if I was having a really bad day, it would be like two pods,” explained Trella, aged 17 at the time of the documentary. A single JUUL pod can contain the same amount of nicotine as a pack of 20 cigarettes. 

The Center for Prevention has launched “Behind the Haze,” a teen vaping prevention campaign that leverages the power of social media to deliver targeted messaging using relevant and believable facts to youth about vaping, the truth about targeting from the vaping industry and vaping addiction. “The Great Manipulator” centers on the role that vaping may play on exacerbating mental health issues like anxiety, stress and depression, because nicotine can interrupt the role neurotransmitters play in regulating emotions. While vaping may feel like the things to do allay anxiety or stress, it may make matters worse.

As a community, we must do more to protect the health of our students. Parents and teachers are still getting to know what e-cigarettes look like and learning how to spot signs that kids might be vaping or have an addiction problem.

In the meantime, we must support our youth and the challenges they face every day in navigating the most unique return to school experiences in recent times.

Because the FDA and other policy makers have still not acted to ban all menthol and flavored e-cigarettes and tobacco products, we need a strong statewide policy to protect Minnesota youth from these addictive products. Parents, students and community members can urge their legislators to work to clear the market of all menthol and flavored e-cigarettes and tobacco products in Minnesota.

About the author: Jenny Song is a Senior Communications and Advocacy Consultant, Center for Prevention, at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota.