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Why people can't stop vaping

The proportion of the adult population using e-cigarettes has increased to its highest rates ever this year. What is it that's making this phenomenon so popular for smokers and even people who have never smoked?

I used to be addicted to vaping

This weekend I was walking along Oxford Street with a friend who really needed a vape. As we were walking I led her to a shop I knew nearby in Picadilly Circus to get one for a decent price. I know what you’re thinking. Bad decision - Central London on a weekend is an absolute mess of a place, but it was the easiest place for us to meet.

Me and my ex lol

Going to get her a vape got us talking about the rising use of vapes in our society. I used to vape a lot. Like a vape gone every one or two days a lot. I’ve never been a cigarette smoker, but I started vaping when I had my first boyfriend, who was Italian and smoked cigarettes all the time (for the record he never ever encouraged me vaping but I felt like I could do it and not be judged).

My story of being someone who never smoked a cigarette but became addicted to vaping is becoming increasingly common, and as a behavioural designer, I will walk you through why I think people can’t stop vaping using a Desire Code lens.

So why is vaping so popular?

Short-term: We’re wired to think short-term versus long-term. In general, nicotine has many short-term benefits, and vaping in general hasn’t been studied enough for us to know the long-term costs.

Some of the short-term benefits include the immediate dopamine hit in the brain when we’re anxious or sad, the ability to curb appetite (not that I am saying this is healthy), and the feeling of an energy boost.

Unlike alcohol, there aren’t immediate consequences like a hangover because vaping doesn’t impair cognitive ability (in fact some studies show nicotine actually improves memory) so users don’t have to stop vaping long enough to feel heavy withdrawals.

Emotional: There is some stigma around vaping, but not nearly as much as smoking because vapes smell nice, they look pretty and they haven’t been shown to transmit second-hand smoke in the same way cigarettes have. Vaping is seen as a personal choice, not a selfish one.

As people, we’re emotional first and rational second (check out Daniel Kahneman's work), and we are super in tune with wanting to be socially accepted for survival. A lot of the reason people don’t smoke cigarettes these days is because there is a social stigma associated with smoking cigarettes.

Certain: The thing about nicotine and really any drug, is that users who like them know they will work. If it’s not working they know the answer is just to take more. Vaping may have long-term consequences, but the short-term risk is almost non-existent compared to illegal drugs which have been known to kill some people on their first use.

Positive: Vaping is enjoyable and justifiable. Anyone vaping can say “at least I’m not smoking,” and put a positive spin on vaping.