The Secret World of Youth Vaping

Vaping is a growing trend among youth, and kids are going to great lengths to hide their vaping behaviors from their parents, teachers, and other adults in their lives.

young man with smoke in front of his face, implying youth vaping

Read Time: 5 minutes


Youth vaping has risen at an unprecedented rate since vaping products were first introduced into the U.S. market in 2007. In 2011, 5% of U.S. high school students reported that they had tried e-cigarettes (i.e., “vaping”). Eight years later, in 2019, 50% of high school students had tried vaping and 7% were vaping every day. Vaping is now more common among adolescents than smoking cigarettes. In 2022, 21% of 12th graders reported having vaped in the past month compared to 4% who smoked. While both youth and adults tend to think of vaping as less harmful than cigarette smoking, vaping liquid contains nicotine and other toxic chemicals. Vaping is addictive and has been associated with heart disease and interfering with brain development in youth. Vaping is also known to lead to cigarette smoking.

Adults who work closely with youth, such as teachers and school administrators, have seen firsthand the explosion of vaping into youth culture. They struggle on a daily basis with dilemmas of how to detect it and enforce rules prohibiting the behavior. They grapple with questions such as whether to install vaping monitors in schools, and whether or not to suspend youth who are found vaping. While detectors are effective for detecting vapor, youth have discovered ways to avoid them, such as exhaling into their backpacks, shirt sleeves, or even into a toilet bowl and flushing it. When vaping is detected, administrators must rush to the scene, hoping to catch the perpetrator. If they do catch a student vaping, there is the question of the appropriate response. Suspension is disruptive to education. The Truth Initiative recommends support: vaping is addictive and students need resources for quitting.

We conducted three focus groups with 24 youth ages 11-17 in the Denver metro area to understand their experiences with vaping, including why and how they do it. Youth told us about the social nature of vaping, including the fun they have mimicking vaping tricks they see on the internet. Some middle school students reported being so enticed by the tricks that they made their own vaping solutions from grocery store ingredients.

“[M]y friend just vapes in her room, and whenever her mom asks, ‘What’s that smell?’ she just says it’s her perfume because they smell very identical.”

Youth also described the stress in their lives and how vaping serves as a quick and easy coping strategy.  Sources of stress included pressure to excel in school, sports, and other activities, as well as stressful situations at home. A 14-year old told us: “I’m on swim team for my high school, and most of the girls on the swim team that I know do vape…because swimming can be such a stressful sport … coaches really push you to get good times… which leads kids into vaping.” A sixth grader told us: “Sometimes your life can be actual hell and they just don’t know how to deal with that, so they just try and hide from that. And I guess vaping is the only way that they can think of.”

We learned that youth are creative in their efforts to conceal vaping, and that school suspensions may encourage the behavior.  One participant talked about an incident at school where several youth were suspended for vaping and were greeted back by their peers with enhanced popularity. Another stated: “If you can get away with it while the teacher is looking, then it’s a status thing…There’s actually one specific kid….he mods them to look like asthma inhalers.”  Another youth told us, “Some of them even have these weird little tubes that they’ve installed in their backpacks that they can breathe into, and it’ll go into a pocket or something.”

We heard from the youth that their parents and other adults are often unaware that their children are vaping. Adults are more focused on preventing cigarette smoking and the use of other substances.

There are efforts underway to restrict youth access to vaping products, but they have not been successful in reversing the trend. In our study, youth talked about “plugs” who are classmates or somewhat older youth who sell a variety of products that are both legal and illegal. They also told us that convenience stores will often sell vaping products to underage kids.

Our findings are similar to studies from other parts of North America and Europe. There seems to be a universality in the youth experience in regard to the reasons kids vape, how they acquire products, and how they hide their behavior. Interventions are needed that change attitudes and social norms that support vaping, and help youth to quit. A promising approach may be youth-engaged interventions such as peer-to-peer messaging.

Our team recently received funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to pilot an intervention in which high school students will develop short narrative videos that discourage vaping. These videos will be presented by the high school students to their middle school peers, along with activities led by the high school students to build skills to resist vaping. Our study will also have a component to raise awareness among parents about youth vaping.

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