What we know…
E-cigarette use, or vaping, in youth and young adults continues to rise in the U.S.,[1, 2] and because of this, policymakers have considered many strategies to reduce access to nicotine vaping products. One strategy is the implementation of Tobacco 21 (T21) laws, which raise the minimum legal age of tobacco product sales from 18 to 21 years. However, despite policymaker’s efforts, underage adolescents and young adults still easily obtain vaping products through social means (e.g., getting products from peers), through in-person purchases (e.g., vape shops, gas stations), and by ordering from online stores. However, it is unclear which strategy is most popular amongst youth as some studies show that underage youth mostly obtain vaping products from their friends[4-6] and that sharing vaping devices with others is a common strategy, while others report the majority of underage youth buy products themselves from in-person retailers. Another striking piece of evidence is that a majority of underage individuals reported they had not been denied purchase of vaping products from in-person or online stores due to their age, suggesting that even when policies like T21 are implemented, they are fruitless if not enforced.[3,5]
What was missing…
Previous studies offer important information regarding where underage adolescents and young adults get their vaping products. However, insights into how underage individuals perceive the ease of accessing products, and the specific ways in which they are obtaining products are needed to better inform effective policy aimed at reducing access to vaping products for underage individuals. In a recent study conducted by a research team at the University of Southern California, we conducted one-on-one qualitative interviews with young adult vapers to better understand how they obtained vaping products while underage and their thoughts and opinions on access to vaping products for young people.
What we found…
Upon analyzing our interview data, important information emerged. Nearly all participants explained that they first tried a vaping device through social sources in a school setting. For example, participants shared stories of using vaping devices while in school locker rooms and in classrooms. They also reported that they were able to buy vaping devices through their peers without authority figures (e.g., teachers, parents) finding out. Even more, participants explained that they bought vapes directly from peers to not only avoid age verifications, but also because buying vapes through peers was cheaper than purchasing from a store. Many participants also found that the ease of purchasing vapes at in-person stores depended greatly on what kind of store they tried to purchase from (e.g., local, independently owned vs. large commercial retailer). They even noted that specific stores in their neighborhoods were known for not checking IDs or being unable to recognize fake IDs. Last, participants reported mixed experiences with purchasing vapes online: while some faced little to no age verification processes, others believed that online age verification measures were difficult to evade.
What we can do now…
Given that schools were found to be a popular location where underage youth access vaping products, it is clear that school-wide anti-vaping policies have been either scarce, ineffective, or unenforced. Thus, it’s important that schools work together with policymakers and researchers to develop more effective strategies to regulate tobacco use on their campuses and to figure out more creative approaches to enforcement. Along with school-based efforts, regulatory bodies should consider new strategies for effectively enforcing T21 policies at tobacco retailers in order to combat underage sale of vaping products. For example, it may be beneficial for serious legal consequences (i.e., hefty fines or penalties) to be consistently enacted when retailers sell to underage buyers. Last, in regards to online purchasing of vaping products, policy-makers must be constantly up to date on the ever-changing online purchasing landscape and create space for flexible policy implementation to target novel methods of accessing vapes online (i.e., through online delivery services such as Postmates). Once these new strategies are implemented widely, future research can be done to assess their efficacy and, given the findings, potential new innovative strategies can be developed.
Schiff, S.J., Kechter, A., Simpson, K.A., Ceasar, R.C., Braymiller, J.L., & Barrington-Trimis, J.L. (2021). Accessing vaping products when underage: A qualitative study of young adults in Southern California. Nicotine and Tobacco Research, 23(5), 836-841.
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