Outcry over youth vaping continues to drive headlines and policies around the world, fueled in part by parents who have formed prominent anti-vaping groups—like Parents Against Vaping e-cigarettes (PAVe) from New York City, and Mothers Against Vaping in India.
Tobacco harm reductionists lament how this youth-vaping narrative erases the needs of adults who switch from cigarettes to vapes. And while vaping is not entirely risk-free, some dispute the contention that youth vaping causes net harms at a population level. But parents who portray their children as under threat have always been powerful advocates.
These groups don’t, however, represent the attitudes of all parents. Stigma and laws hamper our ability to know how many, but at least some condone their teens’ vaping. It made me wonder why.
Simon Davies (not his real name) is well positioned to shed light on this. He’s an English teacher and Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) at a secondary school in the United Kingdom. And he told Filter that in his experience, a number of parents are buying vapes for their kids.
Parents often tell him, “I know I shouldn’t let them have one, but I rather they vaped than…”
Many students at Davies’ school have learning difficulties, and he mentors teens who are struggling with their education for reasons including mental health conditions, trauma, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This often entails working closely with their parents, and in recent years he has noticed a change in attitudes to vaping.
“One shift I have seen is with parents and even grandparents sanctioning vapes as a ‘lesser evil’ in comparison to other ‘poisons’ such as drugs, alcohol and even energy drinks,” he told Filter. Parents, he said, often tell him, “I know I shouldn’t let them have one, but I rather they vaped than…”
Davies explained that many of his students have complex challenges: “They are young people who exist in pressure cookers and turbulence, and these are the kids who you see turning to other means to alleviate these pressures that they don’t know how to process.”
Studies show that young people who have mental health conditions are more likely to smoke cigarettes than those who don’t. On a wider scale, although smoking has generally fallen in the UK over the years, the rate has remained far higher among adults with a serious mental health condition, without an equivalent decline.
“I am seeing an emerging pattern with students who have ADHD who turn to vapes in order to counter its effects.”
ADHD is a common issue among Davies’ students. “Some parents understand that youngsters with ADHD have an increased risk of suicide and drug addiction, and use vapes as a way to mitigate the latter,” he said. “I am seeing an emerging pattern with students who have ADHD who turn to vapes in order to counter its effects. An external calming tool to mitigate the internal motor.”
“Again, I’ve spoken to parents who sanction this approach and even purchase them for their children,” he continued, “seeing them as preferable to other elements their children may turn to.”
Davies said that parents are also embracing the message that vapes are safer than smoking, and would rather their kids vape than smoke—although this isn’t so much the appeal for students, in his experience.
Recently, a prominent British physician blamed the UK’s message that vapes are 95 percent safer than cigarettes for youth vaping uptake, a claim that experts and researchers rejected.
“Family members have told some students who are about to do exams that they can vape during these stressful months.”
Davies told Filter that often, it is parents who smoke to alleviate their own stresses who buy their teens vapes, because they want a safer alternative for their kids. Research has found that teens whose parents smoke are more likely to start themselves.
The potential benefits of nicotine also include relieving anxiety and stress, and improving cognitive performance. “I know family members have told some students who are about to do exams that they can vape during these stressful months, if they aim to quit once the exams are over,” Davies said.
Such ideas are likely to be considered particularly incendiary in the United States, where many schools and homes have “zero-tolerance” attitudes and policies. But there, too, mental health challenges cannot be ignored as a primary driver of youth vaping.
Meanwhile, in the new Netflix docuseries about Juul, former employees put responsibility on parents if they don’t want their kids to vape. And recently, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine published a study summarizing evidence on the effectiveness of youth vaping-prevention interventions. It concluded, “E-cigarette use prevention was associated with high perceived parental monitoring at the individual level.”
“My stance as a parent is one of telling our children the truth.”
In response to this study, Marc Slis, a vape shop owner and tobacco harm reduction advocate in Michigan, tweeted that he had educated his kids on “all aspects of vaping” with “actual facts, no lying, scare tactics.” Having quit cigarettes himself with the help of vapes, he stated that he’d rather his kids vape if the alternative is “deadly smoking.”
“My stance as a parent is one of telling our children the truth, educating them to make informed choices and hopefully choosing lower-risk alternatives to the deadliest product on the market, no matter their age,” he explained to Filter. “Smoking will destroy their health and eventually kill half, on average 10 years early. That is a fate I would prefer my kids avoid.”
Slis said his kids have so far chosen not to smoke or vape—despite having a parent who vapes and has given them permission to do so, if it meant they wouldn’t smoke.
All of this can help to explain why some parents, even in the midst of shocking stories about the dangers of youth vaping, have chosen to green-light vapes for their teens.
Photograph by Benoît Prieur via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, has received grants from Juul Labs, Inc. Filter‘s Editorial Independence Policy applies.