'Vaping and fidget-spinners': A qualitative, longitudinal study of e-cigarettes in adolescence

Int J Drug Policy. 2020 Jun 6;82:102791. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2020.102791. Online ahead of print.


Background: We see the contours of a cigarette-free adolescent cohort in Norway. Simultaneously, increasing use of vaping devices among adolescents internationally, and in the US in particular, has evoked fear of a new nicotine-addicted generation. This longitudinal study explores the vaping phenomenon in a context where nicotine e-liquid is still prohibited.

Methods: Data are from longitudinal, qualitative interviews with a sizable sample of 12-17 year olds (118 8th graders from 6 schools/classes at baseline). Four follow-ups were conducted from 2015 to 2019 (a total of 50 semi-structured group and 175 individual interviews). The interviews were coded using HyperResearch software and thematically analysed in the light of actor network and interaction ritual theory.

Results: Gradual and collective shifts in vaping practices and in the symbolic meaning of vaping were observed in three phases. First, in 8th grade, few had tried to vape, even if several were curious about this novel invention, practice and the available flavours. Second, after 9th grade, one in three reported personal use. They emphasised harmlessness, coolness, performance and accessibility online. However, by the end of middle school, a third phase became visible; vaping had lost status and was described as 'childish' and unpopular. Interviewees repeated the lack of relevance in high school, comparing e-cigarettes with the fidget-spinner and reserving vaping for kids and addicted adult smokers. The analysis displays a systematic pattern in which adolescents account for vaping as a time-limited trend.

Conclusion: E-cigarettes were devalued from novelty and transgression to childish and uninteresting within the same sample over a four-year period. In conclusion, e-cigarettes in the sample represented fashionable experimentation rather than steady user patterns.

Keywords: Actor Network Theory; Adolescence; E-cigarettes; Interaction Ritual; Qualitative Longitudinal study; Trend; Vaping.