Young People and Vaping: Expert Insights from Dr. Leah Costello

Vermont Moms is proud to work with Flavors Hook Kids VT, the sponsors of this post. The opinions shared here are our own and all data is verifiable and linked to its source.

Vermont Moms’ Whose Kid Is That ?!? podcast hosts Julie and Val spoke with beloved local pediatrician, Dr. Leah Costello, about the risks faced by young people with regard to flavored tobacco and how parents can talk to their children about vaping. Vermont Moms is delighted to work with Flavors Hook Kids VT to encourage our state to become one in a growing list of states that have ended the sale of flavored tobacco products.

colorful vape cartridges

Young people and vaping is a problem we can no longer ignore. Rates of e-cigarette use among young are increasing. In 2017, 11.7% of high schoolers used an e-cigarette within 30 days of being polled. In 2020, 19.6% of high schoolers reported vaping within 30 days of being surveyed. This is a massive increase and it is time to act.

Young people and vaping: Background

We know that flavored tobacco is marketed to kids, particularly on media where kids frequent: YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, and all streaming services. Vapes are made to look identical to school supplies. Vape “juice” is named to appeal to kids. Vaping, unlike cigarette smoking, has no “learning curve” and no stinky smoke that cues parents into cigarette use. Someone can pick up a vape and inhale a large amount of nicotine- with no coughing. It is very, very easy for anyone, particularly young people, to get addicted to vaping. And it is very, very difficult to quit- even more so for young people than for adults. 

Nicotine impacts the capacity for learning, memory, and attention in developing brains in such a way that young people can become agitated, inattentive, and depressed, and it damages cardiovascular, respiratory, and reproductive systems. We know for sure that smoking cigarettes causes cancer. We do not yet know how vaping contributes to cancer, but it is linked to serious lung damage.

In 2023, 30% of high schoolers reported daily vaping. 

Vermont currently spends more than $400,000,000 annually to treat illnesses caused by tobacco.

In Vermont, Act S. 18, ending the sale of flavored tobacco products in Vermont, was just approved by the Vermont House and will now be sent to the Senate. All Vermonters must contact their senator to ensure he or she knows how important it is to support the ban on flavored tobacco sales in Vermont. Our young people need us to be clear: No tobacco use is safe. We should not be selling flavored tobacco products in Vermont.

Conversation about young people and vaping with Dr. Leah Costello on Vermont Moms’ Whose Kid Is That?!?

We asked Dr. Costello how she approaches vaping with her own children and with the children she sees as patients as a pediatrician. She focused on several areas of discussion. 

Advertising that Targets Young People and Vaping: Let’s Take a Critical Look at What Our Kids See

The first thing she mentioned was how advertising subtly and pervasively impacts kids and how with vaping, as with all of the myriad of unhealthy messages our kids get through advertising on social media and streaming networks, it’s important to talk directly to our kids about what they’re seeing in ads. We can let our kids know that “Hey, they’re targeting you and you’re falling for it and even if you don’t want to be owned by anybody or have your parents telling you what to do- big tobacco companies (are trying to) tell you what to do.” 

Kids are inundated with nonstop advertising messaging about what to buy, how to look, and how to be “cool” and tobacco companies use this pressure to bring in a new generation of customers. Looking at ads critically with kids and discussing the obvious and subtle messaging is a great way to spark discussion and help them make informed choices. 

Dr. Costello also discussed how vaping was initially marketed as a “safer alternative” to cigarettes as a nicotine delivery system- but only for people who were heavy smokers. This was before the long-term risks of vaping were known. Consequently, some remnants of this advertising approach remain, even when vaping is known to be dangerous and addictive. It’s particularly important to peel back this sort of messaging in advertising with kids. 

Mental Health

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, young people have experienced a lot of mental health stressors. Any school will confirm: young people’s mental health has taken a huge hit. In Vermont, it is very challenging to find therapists, particularly ones able to prescribe and evaluate medication for young people. Waitlists are sometimes months long for certain providers. More young people than ever are experiencing anxiety and depression- the prevalence of anxiety and depression in young people has doubled since Covid.

Dr. Costello addressed how her patients’ parents are asking her how to support their children and that vaping is just one of many concerns. It’s just so challenging when kids are facing so many issues at once. 

An array of vape pens and refills

Ubiquity: Vaping is Everywhere! 

Here’s the thing about vaping. It is everywhere. It is in schools, people are vaping at the beach, you can see people vaping absolutely everywhere. As Dr. Costello put it, “You’re just going to notice people. It’s this hand-to-mouth action that… think about snacking. We are a society that’s very hand-to-mouth. For a lot of us, it feels good to have that motion. And now you’ll notice it more and more because you’re suddenly aware of how much vaping is going on around you.” And your kids see that. They notice. “Everyone knows someone who’s vaping.” Even kids. 

And when you see it, in person, on TV, or in an ad, that’s the time, according to Dr. Costello, to have a conversation with your kids

With young kids, you can just say, “I really think that that’s not healthy. I wish that nobody would do that” and leave it at that. 

With older kids, you can ask, “Why do you think teens get into this? Why do you think your friends think about vapes? Do you think feeling pressure made them want to try this? Why do you think that (vaping) makes them feel good? Do you think it helps with their sleep? Do you think it helps with anxiety like it can?”

There are a lot of reasons why young people start vaping. It may seem less risky due to the silly names, youthful flavors, and brightly colored vapes. It may seem like everyone is trying it. Young people may get into vaping because an older sibling or other family member does it… which brings us to the next point. 

Modeling Healthy and Unhealthy Behaviors

Dr. Costello was clear. “They get it from us, too, right? 

“…You come home from work, and you’re like, oh, my gosh, that was such a stressful day. I need a glass of wine… What our kids are hearing… (because) they’re always listening… except for when you’re telling them to put their shoes on, when suddenly, they can’t hear anything.”

When it comes to modeling healthy and unhealthy behaviors, Dr. Costello thinks that “We should start talking about it as early as we can. And (even though its) uncomfortable and hard to talk about… (to) our seven-year-olds and our 10-year-olds… but (these behaviors are) all around us.” Talking about health and safety is just as important as limiting screen time and eating vegetables. 

Again, as kids get older, Dr. Costello says that “Conversation can really shift” to include discussions about what your child’s friends are doing. The key here, she says, is to not be judgmental, to keep a straight face, and to keep the conversation moving. Her hot tip for talking with young people? Use the car to your advantage. There’s no WiFi, no one can walk away, there are few distractions, and you don’t have to make eye contact. All of these factors may work in your favor to spark real conversation. 

Peer Support Related to Young People and Vaping

Monkey see, monkey do.

There’s a reason every young teen girl is now obsessed with expensive skincare and that this and similar trends spread like wildfire among young people. And it’s not like adults are immune to peer pressure and the glamor and appeal of advertising. But as adults, we have the mental capacity to weigh risks and to make informed decisions. 

Young people do not develop this ability til their mid 20s. This is why Dr. Costello recommends peer (or near-peer) educators to work with school-age children. They can model healthy choices and show positive examples of how to say no to vaping. 

If you would like to learn more about young people and vaping, please visit: 

Listen to our podcast about young people and vaping with Dr. Leah Costello

5.2 Flavors Hook Kids with Dr. Leah Costello

If you have a story about young people and vaping, please reach out. It's so important to get this information out to everyone.

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Young People and Vaping: Expert Insights from Dr. Leah Costello

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