Getting Through To Teenagers On The Dangers Of Vaping

Many vaping products very closely resemble USB flash drives. [Gabriel Kramer/ideastream]
Many vaping products very closely resemble USB flash drives. [Gabriel Kramer / ideastream]

Students from Avon High School and West Geauga High School joined the American Heart Association and a panel of Cleveland medical professionals Thursday morning to talk about the dangers of vaping – and learn how to listen to each other.

Dr. Christine Alexander, chair of the MetroHealth Department of Family Medicine, acknowledged early in the discussion that teenagers will care more about the negative effects of vaping if those negative effects are relatable to them.

The panel discussion took place at the Downtown Cleveland offices of the American Heart Association. [Gabriel Kramer / ideastream]

"'You're going to get a heart attack. You're going to get cancer.' That's not very meaningful to a teenager," she said.

Haley Ottman, a freshman at West Geauga High School, agreed that she and her fellow teenagers are more likely to listen to someone younger when it comes to learning about vaping -- someone who is "using their language.”

For instance, "Juul" or "vape" is much more commonly used amongst teenagers than "e-cigarettes," Ottman said.

Social media would be a good way to reach students when it comes to sharing information about vaping, Ottman said, especially when she already sees ads for vaping products on Snapchat.

When Alexander talks about the dangers of cigarettes, mentions to teenagers that smoking cigarettes can make breath smell bad or turn teeth yellow.

"They're starting to develop relationships. They're starting to date. It's all about body image. Linking tobacco products to negative body image is something that would be very important to teenagers," Alexander said.

But smoking tobacco is not exactly the same as vaping. And Alexander understands that.

Vaping products have flavors and a much more appealing smell than tobacco, so relating vaping to a negative body image may not be as easy.

Julia Clark (left) and Haley Ottman (right) are both freshman at West Geauga High School. [Gabriel Kramer / ideastream]

Still, Alexander says as researchers learn more about vaping, the information needs to be displayed in a way that teenagers will care about and take seriously.

"For us as adults, we come at them with 'education is power.' That's not very meaningful to a teenager," Alexander said. "We need to know what is important to them and match our message to what is important to them."

Beyond the message itself, Alexander says that who give the message and how it’s delivered is just as important.

Students said guest speakers come to their school to talk about vaping, their classmates frequently dismiss the speakers because they’re older adults who never vaped in the first place.

Julia Clark, a West Geauga High School freshman, said she didn't realize that she did not fully understand the dangers of vaping before the panel discussion – and admitted that's probably true of most of her peers. 

"A lot of people think they're not going to get addicted to it or they just do it one or two times and that's it, that's all," Clark said.

Warnings about vaping would come across better if it came from a peer, Alexander said, someone younger or someone with vaping experience, rather than someone a teenager sees like a parent. 

"Their natural tendency is to rebel authority, to rebel the knowledge of parental age folks because their developmental task is to figure out things for themselves,” she said.

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