Teen vaping prevention: truth or scare?

Teen vaping prevention: truth or scare?

With the rise of teen vaping comes the rise of teen vaping prevention. Fighting Back Santa Maria has put on many such presentations at the Orcutt Academy High School Campus. While the tactics used in these presentations can be seen as an unfortunate necessity, it needs to be asked: are students being presented with the truth or is it a slight stretch in the name of prevention?


I saw fighting back Santa Maria’s Teen Vaping Presentation earlier this term, and after listening to the 40-minute presentation, I could honestly say I was concerned. It seemed to feature blatant sensationalizing of the facts of vaping; it actually made me angry (a link to the presentation will be added soon). The presentation implies that the lithium ion batteries in vapes are a risk and could blow up causing serious injury. The problem with making an assertion like this is that the risk of a vape exploding is extremely low. In a Wired article titled “Vape Pens are Blowing up Like Literally” it cited that the, “Federal Emergency Management Agency identified … 25 cases of e-cigarette explosions in the US between 2009-2014.” The article grants that these were only the cases that were reported by the media, but still, taking into account the millions of vapes in use, the risk seems to be negligible at best. 


The presentation also spends a lot of time attacking the company with the largest market share in vaping: Juul. It is attacked for marketing to kids and for not caring about the effects that their products could have on teens. While proving whether a company like Juul actually cares is pretty much impossible, the problem lies later on in the presentation.


Directly after showing a very oddly edited clip of the head of Juul dastardly dodging a reporter’s question on whether or not the company targets kids with their flavors, the next slide is entitled “The Flavor Trap.” It goes on to list that there are over 15,500 flavors of vapes and lists some particularly kiddish flavors such as “Unicorn Poop” and various candy flavors. However, Juul actually makes almost none of these flavors. According to the New Yorker article, Juul limits its sweet flavors to “mango, crème brûlée, mixed fruit, and cucumber.” While this assortment of flavors can hardly ride into the sunset scot-free, it is hardly the 15,000+ flavors the presentation makes seem like Juul is producing.


This is what is so frustrating about sensationalizing facts. Does the presentation actually say that Juul produces all these flavors? No. But it talks about these flavors after spending six slides attacking Juul and imbeds a damning clip of the CEO of Juul talking about how the company may be targeting kids. All to the effect of making it seem like Juul is the sole villain in this conspiracy to kill are children. 


While this sort of reporting isn’t catastrophic, it is hardly good. It attacks Juul, which it probably needs to do since this is the most easily accessible brand of vape out there for teens.  But do they really need to do it by twisting the facts almost to the breaking point?


Even worse, this implication that Juul is making all these products misses the point that there are a lot of pirated Juul-compatible vape pods out there. These pods are the things that are really deadly because no one has any idea what is in them and they are usually poorly made with high amounts of diacetyl, the chemical that is known to cause the respiratory illness Popcorn Lung.


The presentation makes it seem like Juul is the one to blame, when in reality, these knock-off Juul brands need to be watched out for with much more vigor than anything Juul will ever produce. 


But the issue I have with these presentations is not just limited to teen vaping; it is a common practice in most teen prevention presentations. Whether that be tobacco prevention or sex education, there is a widely recognized pattern in these campaigns to trump up situations to scare kids out of undesirable or sometimes dangerous behaviors, usually at the expense of 100% factual accuracy.


This type of exaggeration has always left an unsatisfied feeling when listening to them. It is as if the presentations insult our intelligence as young people. They broadcast to their audience that they aren’t smart enough to be able to take the actual facts, sans window dressing, and make a rational decision about their behavior after being educated on the risks and benefits. 


Instead, these presentations show us that the preventionists (and schools) do not trust students to make these types of decisions without tipping the mental scales using scare tactics to make the facts more weighty.


This fact was frustrating. It made me feel small, talked down to, and most of all dumb, as I’m sure it makes many students feel. 


However, my opinions changed. The problem with criticizing presentations for not trusting students to make rational decisions is they usually don’t make these types of decisions. I am aware that what I am about to say has been beaten into students like the OA band beats those giant drums, but the part of our brains responsible for rational thought is not fully developed till about age 25, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center. 


To make matters worse vaping companies such as Juul (yes, the same company I discussed above) have begun to use this rational blindspot that teenagers possess to quickly score lifelong customers. This is the point that Fighting Back should directly target–young people are being manipulated into using an addictive product in hopes of establishing lifelong habits. 


This is a huge problem since, “The younger the brain, the more easily its reward circuits can be manipulated” says an article by the New Yorker titled “The Promise of Vaping and the Rise of Juul”. This means that younger brains are more easily hooked on nicotine, giving parents fear and vaping companies the incentive to target the demographic. 


It is for this reason that, after considering these facts, my opinions changed. In the case of harmful habits that schools and parents have a vested interest in stopping, there needs to be something like what Fighting Back Santa Maria is doing. Vaping is a tendency that is hooking more teens than ever before and there needs to be some sort of way to prevent it from spreading. 


This is why I now see the scare tactics employed by vaping preventionists in a different light. Are they over dramatic? Yes. Even Ayola admits that they are, but according to her, they are also necessary to get students to realize the risks of these products.


While the over-the-top scare tactics employed by Fighting Back Santa Maria and most other prevention groups seem to have their place, we must also strive to be as factual as possible with these presentations while still educating young people about the risks of substances as well as the possible motives of companies. As Ayola says, “I am not here to force anyone to do anything, I am just here to educate [students on the risks of vaping].” And that is exactly it, we must educate first and convince second. 


It is necessary because teens are not always able to make completely rational decisions (adults aren’t often too great at them either), and so these scare tactics are sometimes needed to protect students from habits that are really harmful, like vaping. However, with this territory comes some risk. Preventionists sometimes get a free pass to stretch the truth as much as they need to get their message across. While it may make their presentation more effective, some of the stuff that is said are borderline lies. 


But what do I know? I am just a seventeen-year old with a moderately developed capacity for rational thought. Why don’t you be the judge. The teen vaping Presentation given by Jennifer Ayola from Fighting Back Santa Maria is included at the bottom of this article, take a look, what do you think?