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STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.6, RH.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.4, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.3, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.5, RI.6-8.7, W.6-8.4, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Time, Continuity, and Change • Individual Development and Identity • Power, Authority, and Governance • Production, Distribution, and Consumption • Science, Technology, and Society • Global Connections

U.S. NEWS

The Fight Against Teen Vaping 

Thousands of e-cigarette products in bright colors and tempting flavors are illegally flooding the U.S. market. Learn what’s being done to remove them—and why you should steer clear.

Question: Why might e-cigarette companies want their products to appeal to teens?

Question: Why might e-cigarette companies want their products to appeal to teens?

Alexa Addison remembers what vapes—also known as e-cigarettes—looked like when she was in high school. Many of them were slim black rectangles with sharp corners, resembling flash drives.

By the time Addison, now 19, started college in North Carolina in 2022, however, vapes had had a makeover. Many of her classmates were using Elf Bars. These brightly colored e-cigarettes look like AirPods cases. But the playful packaging masks what is hidden inside: nicotine, a dangerous and highly addictive substance that can damage the brain and lungs. 

Addison bought sweet and fruity flavors like strawberry-kiwi. She took selfies when the vapes matched her outfits. Before long, she was going through an Elf Bar a week. During a period of intense use, her gums turned gray, she says. Still, the devices—which young people often say look like candy, lip gloss, or fun soap—kept her vaping.

“They looked really pretty, honestly,” Addison says. “I just never had an interest in vaping until the pretty ones started being sold.”

Alexa Addison, 19, remembers what vapes looked like when she was in high school. Vapes are also known as e-cigarettes. Many of them were slim black rectangles with sharp corners. They resembled flash drives.

In 2022, Addison started college in North Carolina. By then, vapes had had a makeover. Many of her classmates were using Elf Bars. These brightly colored e-cigarettes look like AirPods cases. But the playful packaging masks what is hidden inside: nicotine. That is a dangerous and highly addictive substance. It can damage the brain and lungs. 

Addison bought sweet and fruity flavors like strawberry-kiwi. She took selfies when the vapes matched her outfits. Soon she was going through an Elf Bar a week. She says her gums turned gray during a period of intense use. Yet the devices kept her vaping.

Young people often say vapes look like candy, lip gloss, or fun soap. “They looked really pretty, honestly,” Addison says. “I just never had an interest in vaping until the pretty ones started being sold.”

1 in 20

Estimated number of middle schoolers who vaped in the previous 30 days

SOURCE: 2023 National Youth Tobacco Survey

Addison isn’t the only one being drawn in. While e-cigarette use among teens has declined overall since 2019, use of the newer, flavored devices is on the rise. About 1 in 10 high school students and 1 in 20 middle school students used an e-cigarette in the previous month, according to the 2023 National Youth Tobacco Survey. 

Doctors say that’s troubling. Research shows that teens—whose brains are still developing—become addicted to nicotine more easily than adults do. And one Elf Bar has as much nicotine as 590 traditional cigarettes, according to a study by Stanford University in California. 

It’s illegal for people under 21 to buy cigarette products in the first place. And to top it off, the vast majority of the estimated 11,500 vaping products for sale are not authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA is a federal agency whose job it is to ensure that products for sale—such as food and cosmetics—are safe to use. Several e-cigarette brands, including Elf Bars, have been banned from being imported to the United States at all. 

So why are these tempting products still on store shelves—and getting into the hands of young people? 

Addison is not the only one being drawn in. Since 2019, e-cigarette use among teens has gone down overall. But use of the newer, flavored devices is on the rise. About 1 in 10 high school students and 1 in 20 middle school students used an e-cigarette in the previous month. That is according to the 2023 National Youth Tobacco Survey. 

Doctors say that is troubling. Teens’ brains are still developing. Research shows that teens become addicted to nicotine more easily than adults do. And one Elf Bar has as much nicotine as 590 traditional cigarettes. That is according to a study by Stanford University in California. 

It is illegal for people under 21 to buy cigarette products in the first place. And most of the estimated 11,500 vaping products for sale are not authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA is a federal agency whose job it is to ensure that products for sale are safe to use. That includes food and cosmetics. Several e-cigarette brands, including Elf Bars, have been banned from being imported to the United States at all.

So why are these tempting products still on store shelves? And why are they getting into the hands of young people? 

How Vaping Could Affect Your Health 

pamelaoliveras/RooM RF/Getty Images

The toxic chemicals can cause serious side effects:

• coughing 

• nausea

• headaches

• difficulty concentrating 

• asthma

• heart disease

• lung disease

Vaping may also worsen mental health issues such as anxiety or depression in people who already have those conditions.

SOURCE: Stanford School of Medicine

The toxic chemicals can cause serious side effects:

• coughing 

• nausea

• headaches

• difficulty concentrating 

• asthma

• heart disease

• lung disease

Vaping may also worsen mental health issues such as anxiety or depression in people who already have those conditions.

SOURCE: Stanford School of Medicine

Teens and E-Cigarettes

Most U.S. states began restricting how cigarette companies market their products to kids and teens in 1998. Decades of research had shown that the tobacco in cigarettes carries significant health risks. Tobacco is made up of thousands of toxic chemicals, some of which can cause cancer.

E-cigarettes, which were invented about 20 years ago, do not contain tobacco. Some companies have marketed them as a safe alternative to cigarettes as a result. But, like cigarettes, they do contain nicotine. And though the research is ongoing, what experts do know so far is alarming. Studies have found that vaping may be linked to lung disease.

That hasn’t stopped cigarette companies from trying to appeal to kids and teens, though (see “The Government vs. Big Tobacco,” below). The companies want lifelong customers, so they try to attract new users when they are young, experts say. Today’s colorful and trendy e-cigarettes are yet another attempt to win over teens, according to everyone from lawmakers to anti-smoking groups.

In 1998, most U.S. states began to restrict how cigarette companies market their products to kids and teens. Decades of research had shown that the tobacco in cigarettes carries serious health risks. Tobacco is made up of thousands of toxic chemicals. Some of them can cause cancer.

E-cigarettes were invented about 20 years ago. They do not contain tobacco. So some companies have marketed them as a safe alternative to cigarettes. But, like cigarettes, they do contain nicotine. Research is ongoing. But what experts do know so far is alarming. Studies have found that vaping may be linked to lung disease.

That has not stopped cigarette companies from trying to appeal to kids and teens (see “The Government vs. Big Tobacco,” below). The companies want lifelong customers. So they try to attract new users when they are young, experts say. Today’s colorful and trendy e-cigarettes are yet another attempt to win over teens. That is according to everyone from lawmakers to anti-smoking groups.

KEY MOMENTS

The Government vs. Big Tobacco

The Advertising Archives (Joe Camel ad)

Ever since packs of cigarettes included baseball cards in the early 1900s, tobacco companies have been accused of marketing to kids and teens. Here are some examples from history—and how the government responded. 

1988
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company begins using a cartoon character, Joe Camel, in its ads. In 1997, the company agrees to retire the character after criticism that he is used to target young people.

2009
Congress passes a law that limits cigarette makers from marketing to kids. But according to experts, companies find ways to get around the law.

2015
The company Juul Labs begins selling Juul, an e-cigarette with a slim shape and sleek design. The vape, which comes in sweet and fruity flavors, quickly becomes popular with young people. 

2023
Juul Labs agrees to pay more than $450 million to settle lawsuits claiming that its advertising is geared toward kids and teens. Today the FDA is reviewing whether the company’s products should stay on the market.

Ever since packs of cigarettes included baseball cards in the early 1900s, tobacco companies have been accused of marketing to kids and teens. Here are some examples from history—and how the government responded. 

1988
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company begins using a cartoon character, Joe Camel, in its ads. In 1997, the company agrees to retire the character after criticism that he is used to target young people.

2009
Congress passes a law that limits cigarette makers from marketing to kids. But according to experts, companies find ways to get around the law.

2015
The company Juul Labs begins selling Juul, an e-cigarette with a slim shape and sleek design. The vape, which comes in sweet and fruity flavors, quickly becomes popular with young people. 

2023
Juul Labs agrees to pay more than $450 million to settle lawsuits claiming that its advertising is geared toward kids and teens. Today the FDA is reviewing whether the company’s products should stay on the market.

There is “no question” that the latest vapes are designed to catch the eyes of young people, who are drawn toward bright colors and rounded shapes, says Susan Linn. She is a professor at Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts.

“Tobacco companies use cartoons or brightly colored packaging in order to hook kids, to make kids think that this is fun and harmless,” she says.

The appealing flavors are another pull for teens. With names like Banana Cake and Watermelon Bubblegum, Elf Bar was the leading e-cigarette brand this past summer among middle- and high-school students who vape, according to the 2023 National Youth Tobacco Survey.

“If it looks glamorous and it looks appealing, that’s going to be the first driver that will bring a horse to water,” says Brian King, head of the FDA’s tobacco center. “The flavors then get them to drink. And the nicotine keeps them coming back for more.”

The company that manufactures Elf Bar—iMiracle Shenzhen Technology—says it markets to adults. Representatives for the company point out that their products carry the required warning label that nicotine is addictive. 

There is “no question” that the latest vapes are designed to catch the eyes of young people. They are drawn toward bright colors and rounded shapes, says Susan Linn. She is a professor at Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts.

“Tobacco companies use cartoons or brightly colored packaging in order to hook kids, to make kids think that this is fun and harmless,” she says.

The appealing flavors are another pull for teens. Elf Bar flavors have names like Banana Cake and Watermelon Bubblegum. Elf Bar was the leading e-cigarette brand this past summer among middle and high school students who vape. That is according to the 2023 National Youth Tobacco Survey.

“If it looks glamorous and it looks appealing, that’s going to be the first driver that will bring a horse to water,” says Brian King. He is head of the FDA’s tobacco center. “The flavors then get them to drink. And the nicotine keeps them coming back for more.”

The company that makes Elf Bar is iMiracle Shenzhen Technology. It says it markets to adults. And representatives for the company point out that its products carry the required warning label that nicotine is addictive. 

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Factory workers assemble e-cigarettes in China. Most vaping devices are made there.

Illegal Imports

The FDA banned Elf Bar and a few other brands this past summer because of their appeal to teens and kids. Still, finding the products isn’t hard. Shelves in convenience stores, gas stations, and other businesses across the nation are lined with thousands of vapes in bright colors and fun flavors. What’s going on?

Many e-cigarettes that wind up in the U.S. are imported illegally from China. There is high demand—vapes generated $8.3 billion of revenue in the U.S. last year alone. So companies find creative ways to get their products into the country.

When the FDA bans imports of something, it directs U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials to seize incoming shipments. But tens of thousands of shipping containers full of various products arrive daily at U.S. ports. It is impossible for inspectors to check them all. What’s more, some vape shipments are labeled as shoes, toys, or other items.

Another tactic is to quickly rename banned products. Elf Bar now also goes by at least two other names. One of those products is still allowed entry into the U.S.

Meanwhile, new vaping products continue to pour into the country.

This past summer, the FDA banned Elf Bar and a few other brands because of their appeal to teens and kids. Still, it is not hard to find the products. Shelves in convenience stores, gas stations, and other businesses across the nation are lined with thousands of vapes in bright colors and fun flavors. What is going on?

Many e-cigarettes that wind up in the U.S. are imported illegally from China. There is high demand for them: Vapes generated $8.3 billion of revenue in the U.S. last year alone. So companies find creative ways to get their products into the country.

When the FDA bans imports of something, it directs U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials to seize incoming shipments. But tens of thousands of shipping containers arrive daily at U.S. ports. They are full of various products. It is impossible for inspectors to check them all. And some vape shipments are labeled as shoes, toys, or other items.

Another tactic is to quickly rename banned products. Elf Bar now also goes by at least two other names. One of those products is still allowed entry into the U.S.

Meanwhile, new vaping products continue to pour into the country.

Bebeto Matthews/AP Images

Law enforcement officers remove illegal vaping products from a store in New York.

Cracking Down on Vapes 

Because the FDA’s authority to target foreign companies is limited, it has focused on businesses in the U.S. Last year, the agency sent hundreds of warning letters to gas stations and convenience stores. It ordered them to stop selling unauthorized vapes. (There are only about two dozen FDA-authorized brands of e-cigarettes on the market today. None of them are flavored.) The FDA has also issued dozens of fines totaling about $20,000 each to stores that did not comply with the order.

Parents, anti-smoking groups, and lawmakers are calling for even stronger action to address underage vaping. Some states are taking matters into their own hands. California and Massachusetts have barred the sale of all flavored tobacco products, and other states are considering similar bans.

Young people are stepping up too. Many are spreading the word about kicking the habit, and a number of groups are helping them do it. One national organization, Truth Initiative, offers a free text-messaging program to coach teens through the process of quitting.

The FDA has limited authority to target foreign companies. So it has focused on businesses in the U.S. Last year, the agency sent hundreds of warning letters to gas stations and convenience stores. It ordered them to stop selling unauthorized vapes. (Only about two dozen FDA-authorized brands of e-cigarettes are on the market today. None of them are flavored.) The FDA has also issued dozens of fines totaling about $20,000 each to stores that did not obey the order.

Parents, anti-smoking groups, and lawmakers are calling for even stronger action to deal with underage vaping. Some states are taking matters into their own hands. California and Massachusetts have barred the sale of all flavored tobacco products. Other states are considering similar bans.

Young people are stepping up too. Many are spreading the word about kicking the habit. And a number of groups are helping them. One national organization is called Truth Initiative. It offers a free text-messaging program to coach teens through the process of quitting.

Courtesy Truth Initiative

Karely Alcantara

That’s how Karely Alcantara of Silver Spring, Maryland, stopped using e-cigarettes. Now 22, the university student started vaping during her sophomore year of high school.

“I was really stressed about college applications and my grades,” she says. “So every time I would get anxious, I would vape.”

Before long, Alcantara noticed she was having trouble sleeping and focusing. She learned about Truth Initiative through social media and decided to sign up. Over time, the daily texts of encouragement helped her quit. They even gave her tips for how to manage her anxiety in healthier ways.

Now Alcantara works as a student ambassador for the organization. She visits school campuses to talk to young people who want help to stop using e-cigarettes. Her advice for kids and teens who want to quit vaping? 

“Reach out to someone you trust and ask for help,” she says. “And know you’re not alone.”

—Callie Holtermann covers culture for The New York Times. With additional reporting by Lisa M. Herrington

That is how Karely Alcantara stopped using e-cigarettes. The university student is now 22. She is from Silver Spring, Maryland. Alcantara started vaping during her sophomore year of high school.

“I was really stressed about college applications and my grades,” she says. “So every time I would get anxious, I would vape.”

Alcantara soon noticed that she was having trouble sleeping and focusing. She learned about Truth Initiative through social media and decided to sign up. Over time, the daily texts of encouragement helped her quit. They even gave her tips for how to manage her anxiety in healthier ways.

Now Alcantara works as a student ambassador for the organization. She visits school campuses to talk to young people who want help to stop using e-cigarettes. Her advice for kids and teens who want to quit vaping?

“Reach out to someone you trust and ask for help,” she says. “And know you’re not alone.”

—Callie Holtermann covers culture for The New York Times. With additional reporting by Lisa M. Herrington

YOUR TURN

Create a PSA Contest

Design a public service announcement (PSA) to teach other kids and teens about the risks of vaping. Decide which facts are most important to include. Then create a poster, podcast, or social media post. Entries must be submitted to Create a PSA Contest by a teacher, parent, or legal guardian. Three winners will each get a JS notebook.

Design a public service announcement (PSA) to teach other kids and teens about the risks of vaping. Decide which facts are most important to include. Then create a poster, podcast, or social media post. Entries must be submitted to Create a PSA Contest by a teacher, parent, or legal guardian. Three winners will each get a JS notebook.

Entries must be created by a student in grades 4-12 and submitted by their teacher, parent, or legal guardian, who will be the entrant and must be a  legal resident of the U.S. age 18 or older. CLICK HERE FOR DETAILS.

Entries must be created by a student in grades 4-12 and submitted by their teacher, parent, or legal guardian, who will be the entrant and must be a  legal resident of the U.S. age 18 or older. CLICK HERE FOR DETAILS.

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