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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.

Simple: A lot of times the reasons people don’t do something is because it’s not easy or it’s not fun - vaping is both. Just look at the picture of this display in my local Morrisons, they literally lay vapes out like they’re candy in fun flavours and colours. Vapes are so easy to get. My ID is almost never checked and the stores selling vapes make them look so appealing. They’re not hidden behind counters or super expensive the way cigarettes are. It’s almost as easy to buy a vape as it is to buy a candy bar.

Is vaping dangerous?

Vaping has been shown to be a healthier alternative for people who currently smoke and making it an easy and fun alternative is great for that subsection of people, but the problem is that it’s become so appealing it’s creating vapers who never smoked.

We don’t know the consequences of vaping, which made me feel scared about my future. After a while, the idea of putting battery-powered sugared nicotine into your lungs seemed less and less likely to be optimal for my health.

When I stopped vaping it was annoying but ok. What’s harder is the choice to not go back. If I’m honest, part of the reason I quit vaping was that I did feel I was disappointing my flatmate (who is like my sister), my mom and myself.

How I stopped vaping

I stopped vaping because I hated being so reliant on something to make it through the day, and even though they’re not as bad as cigarettes, vaping is expensive and at the time I was really struggling with money.

I don’t judge people who vape because I truly understand how fun vaping is and the relief it can bring. I’m only writing the piece below for people who want to stop but feel like they can’t.

The goal of this week was to explain practical tips to change behaviour long term. I want to make it very clear that my purpose in sharing my story about vaping is solely because it is a place in my life where I broke a habit. Vaping is your choice, and only you know what works for your life. Whatever your vice is, I’ve put five steps for how I broke my habit so you can apply it to whatever you feel is negatively impacting you.

Five tips you can use to break a habit

1. My number one tip - Find a replacement you love and make it as easy as the replacement

Using more of that positive goal setting, find something else that gives you pleasure and that you look forward to doing. To stop vaping, I posted to my Instagram and Tik Tok whenever I wanted a puff. Make what you replace your bad habit with as easy and as fun as possible.

I was vaping when I felt low energy or was bored. Other things you can try besides social media switching could be coffee or tic tacs or other sugar-free candies. Your itches and habits aren’t going to disappear overnight and it’s important to have a plan in place for when you can feel the pull to go backwards.

2. Like I said last week - ask yourself why you want what you want and use positive goals

I want to live a long and healthy life and set a good example. I didn’t like how dependent I was on nicotine to feel normal and I didn’t like how anxious I felt. I wanted to quit vaping to feel healthier, be a better role model and for more stable mood.

I also wanted to grow my career and have fun so I focused on goals around Tik Tok (to see my page click here) where I made 1-5 Tik Toks a day with the goal of figuring out the algorithm (side note I’ve grown from 21 followers to 10,000 in the space of about three months).

3. Don’t put yourself in situations or states of mind where it’s harder to think rationally

I don’t go out much in the first place, but there was nothing like a glass of wine or a hard day that made me want to vape. So I kept myself out of nightlife.

This was easy for me, it might not be so easy for a lot of people who have friends who go out and I understand that. I also kept stress down as much as possible by taking walks and not overworking. I’m in a privileged position to be able to have prioritised SPELLING myself, but if you are able to I recommend you try to take as much “YOU TIME” you time as possible to keep your willpower strong when quitting vaping.

4. Give yourself control

I also gave away most of my vapes - although strangely I still usually have one with me. For me, not restricting vaping and knowing it’s my choice has made me feel more confident in my decision. This does contradict the idea of making bad actions as hard to do as possible, but choosing to do or not do something should always feel like your choice.

5. Turn to your friends for support

Social incentives are a powerful way to keep you motivated. When I was quitting vaping the positive reinforcement from friends helped keep me on track, and whenever I wanted to quit it was great to have people who would tell me it wasn’t a good idea. Of course, most of the drive had to come from me, but having people I love support me made a huge difference.

Did you find this post useful?

I post blogs for curious people every Wednesday at 9:00am.

In next week's blog I'll give tips on how to change behaviour long term based on behavioural design principles

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