Highsnobiety

At some point in the last year, I started wondering why TikTokers were telling me about nicotine in the same sentence as meditation. “It’s all about locking in,” says a shirtless Miami college student on my For You page. At the intersection of motivation, fitness, and zero credentials, there’s always some guy with a six-pack writing his morning routine on a dry-erase board. This one’s telling me and 500k followers to cut out alcohol and gluten. He tells us that a combination of caffeine and nicotine is his natural substitute for Adderall. He calls it “natty addy” and uses terms like nootropics, clean caffeine, and cognitive enhancers to describe a black cup of coffee and Nicorette gum.  

Nicotine pouches protrude from beneath his upper lip as he talks. 

“Don’t forget to drink water,” he adds with a smile.

Smoking isn’t what it used to be. 

It’s the culture as much as the addiction itself. Waking up at 3:00 am from vape withdrawal is part of it now. So are optimization experts and biohackers popularizing the idea that nicotine is a 'nootropic' that can improve focus, memory, and motor skills (which implies that it also helps with ADHD), and rebranding nicotine as a long-lost tool for focusing and enhanced brain performance. Young people aren’t smoking when they drink, they’re vaping when they do schoolwork. There’s an Adderall shortage, don’t forget. Smoke breaks are now called “nic breaks,” and though cigarettes might still be considered cooler than vaping, both options can be considered cringe, depending on the situation.

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I decided to talk to 20 young nicotine users to hear from them why they’re smoking. Not just smoking but vaping, chewing, Zyn’ing, puffing, and otherwise tending to the habit. Because no matter how many trend pieces tell me smoking is back, or that it’s good, they’re almost never going to match what I see on Saturday nights. No matter what’s being sold to me by a topless ripped guy on TikTok, it doesn’t change what doctors have to say about nicotine. Like that withdrawal can actually increase anxiety, depression, and distractibility (and on and on) to the degree of a mental health crisis. And no one is talking about what it’s like to try to quit. 

I wanted to hold the evidence I gathered from the 20 nicotine users I talked to – roughly between the ages of 14 and 29, most based on the East Coast and whose names have been changed – next to what I could learn from existing hard data. Here’s what I found.

We’re just trying to concentrate.

“I use my vape more while studying and doing work than anything else,” 21-year-old Jasper tells me. “It’s like a motivator. It’s also something to look forward to in between classes.” 

“I’ve sometimes used nicotine if I’m tired at work, treating it like a tiny cup of coffee,” says Andy, 29. “Pouches definitely feel more like a focusing agent, whereas cigs or vaping can be a distraction for me.” 

“I got my first vape from an 8th grader when I was in 6th grade,” says a 14-year-old I saw hitting a JUUL in Brooklyn. “All my friends vape at school in between classes,” he tells me. I asked him if he started doing it because it’s what cool kids do. He shrugs. “It makes school and homework less boring.” He says he vapes the most when he has to study. Cigarettes would be harder to hide from his parents because his clothes would smell. Plus, “smoking is cringe.” 

A 2023 analysis of 18 studies from 10 different countries shows that ADHD symptoms are on the rise in children and adolescents globally after the pandemic. And a New York Times piece from January, 2024, points to a surge in prescriptions for drugs used to treat ADHD during the pandemic, particularly among women and patients ages 20 to 39. A spike in stimulant prescriptions has been a contributing factor in the Adderall shortage, which could in turn be contributing to increased nicotine use. Michael Roeske, PsyD, Senior Director of the Newport Healthcare Center for Research and Innovation says research shows that people with ADHD are more susceptible to nicotine use than those without it. “Nicotine has stimulant effects and can impact the brain in a way similar to psychostimulant drugs like Adderall that are frequently used to treat ADHD,” he tells me. “Therefore, the Adderall shortage could possibly increase nicotine use among some young people, with nicotine acting as a substitute.” 

While nicotine can temporarily ease anxiety related to school work by creating a short-term feeling of relaxation that improves mood and concentration, these pleasant feelings are fleeting, and require more and more nicotine to recreate. 

It’s more than a party trick. 

Back in the day – let’s say, like, the 1990s – several studies cited connections between cigarette smoking and alcohol. Anecdotally, a drunk cigarette was a rite of passage for partygoers, but when it comes to nicotine today, people seem to be forgoing drunk cigarettes on a night out in favor of puffing away on an Elf Bar to get through homework assignments. In fact, many don’t relate cigarette use to vaping at all. They’re both uniquely appealing (and addicting) and often thought of as different experiences. 

“I inhale my vape all day at school, but I don’t really smoke cigarettes when I go out at night,” says 21-year-old DC college student Jasper. “I don’t bring my vape out, and I don’t really have drunk cravings.” 

“For me, vaping never coincides with drinking,” says 19-year-old Hans from LA. “It was older ‘cool’ students at my school that introduced me to JUULing. We go to the dorms or bathrooms during school nic breaks. It’s def a social norm and a cool thing to do.”

It’s legitimately soothing (dopamine deception).  

For a lot of users, having something in your hand in social situations is part of the reason to do it. McDonald likens it to the adult version of a baby using a pacifier. “It becomes something like an emotional support water bottle that you carry with you everywhere,” McDonald says. 

“Having something in your hand, whether it be a vape, cigarette, or even a drink, can help serve as a distraction or an ‘out’ in uncomfortable situations,” adds psychotherapist and MENTL.SESH founder Liz Ridgway, LCSW. “It’s like an unhealthy safety crutch.”

Neuroscientist Emily McDonald started researching nicotine addiction after her little brother picked up vaping in middle school. “It impacts brain development. Faulty behavior of [the] prefrontal cortex is why so many people develop lack of focus. Addiction creates and then relieves the dopamine decrease (withdrawal).” 

According to McDonald, nicotine changes your dopamine reward system, releasing dopamine that makes you enjoy whatever experience you associate with the nicotine itself. This is called homeostatic plasticity. When you consume nicotine over time, the brain rewards you with dopamine, which feels good. What’s scarier is you don’t just get dopamine hits from the nicotine. You get dopamine hits from anything that reminds you of the nicotine. “Just seeing the device you get nicotine from will boost dopamine before you even use it,” she explains. “Nicotine is known as one of the most addictive substances in the world, and it’s a cognitive enhancer. It helps with working memory, which is what the biohacking craze is about.” 

There’s Zyn, too.

The nicotine pouches called Zyn are all the rage, and they’ve given rise to Zynfluencers. Last month, TIME called Zyn “the new vaping.” “I used to vape, but then I switched to Zyn because it doesn’t affect my lungs,” says 28-year-old Sam from New York. “I feel infinitely better physically than I did on cigs or vapes.” 

 “A lot of these biohackers push nicotine pouches like Zyn because it enhances focus and short-term memory,” says McDonald. “It drives learning, focus, attention, and faster addiction to nicotine. It temporarily makes you feel good, it helps you learn, and over time, you need more of it to get that same dopamine hit, which makes it very addictive.”

Like the candy-colored vapes that line smoke-shop selves, Zyn comes in a variety of flavors, which our neuroscientist says makes nicotine even more addictive. In January, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schuman called on the FTC and FDA to crack down on the pouches, calling them “packed with problems” and claiming that they “lock their sights on young kids.” 

Vape nation.

While nicotine pouches may be going viral on social, only 1.5% of U.S. teenagers regularly used nicotine pouches in 2023. TIME notes this doesn’t even come close to the 27.5% of U.S. high schoolers vaping when sales of JUUL peaked in 2019. 

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The 2023 National Youth Tobacco Survey shows that while cigarettes are marginally more popular than pouches, e-cigarettes (vapes) are still on top. Especially flavored vapes. Among students reporting current e-cigarette use, 89.4% used flavored products and 25.2% used an e-cigarette daily. The most popular brands were Elf Bar, Esco Bars, Vuse, JUUL, and Mr. Fog. 

Most Commonly Used Types of Devices: 

• E-cigarettes (7.7%) 

• Cigars (1.6%) 

• Cigarettes (1.6%) 

• Nicotine Pouches (1.5%) 

• Smokeless (chewing tobacco, snuff, dip, or snus) (1.2%) 

• Other oral nicotine products (lozenges, discs, tablets, gums,

dissolvable tobacco products, and other products) (1.2%) 

• Hookahs (1.1%) 

• Heated Tobacco Products (1.0%) 

• Pipe Tobacco (0.5%)

And it’s not like cigarettes really ever went away either.

When it comes to culture, numbers can’t measure cool, and they can’t measure cringe either. SNL says cigarettes are still cool, designers are using cigarettes as props on the runway, and The New York Times tells us that cigarettes have become “a pervasive presence in art, design and even food." According to GQ, 2023 was the year that nicotine “made a big comeback.” Olivia Rodrigo was famously quoted saying the first thing she did when she got her driver's license was to buy a pack of cigarettes (that she didn’t actually smoke. She just wanted to show off her ID when she bought them). International street interviewer and DJ Isaac Hindin-Miller, who has worked in fashion for 24 years, told me that smoking cigarettes’s vaguely European glamor never went away. Just take a scroll through the Instagram account @cigfluencers and you’ll see a collection of cigarettes captured in mainstream editorials, iconic Getty archives, and between the fingers of cultural pioneers young and old. 

The crowd is divided on this, however. “Smoking was cool in fashion when people could smoke in their office,” says writer and Vogue alum Liana Satenstein. “A time period none of us existed in and only see in film. I haven’t seen a comeback.”

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In terms of cigarettes having a comeback moment with younger generations, Hindin-Miller sees it as an aesthetic choice linked to the popularity of indie sleaze and the Y2K throwback we’re moving through. “Cigs are timeless and look better in pictures than vaping,” says Throwing Fits co-host Lawrence Schlossman, who has worked in the fashion industry for 15 years. “Every iconic fashionable person blasted darts, so there is a pedigree and precedence there.” 

But are young people actually smoking more than they used to? A 2023 Gallup Poll showed old-fashioned cigarette use at a near historical low. There was a sharp dip in smoking among young adults between 2019 to 2023, which could be related to a surge in e-cigarette use during the pandemic. 

Among U.S. high school students, current overall tobacco product use declined between 2022 2023 (16.5% to 12.6%), thought to be driven primarily by e-cigarette use. The 2023 National Youth Tobacco Survey however also saw an increase in overall tobacco product use among middle school-age (eleven to fourteen year old) students (4.5% to 6.6%). 

Whatever the case may be, the results of smoking remain the same. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease, disability, and death in the United States, accounting for more than 480,000 deaths every year, or about 1 in 5 deaths. 

Public service announcement: where did they all go?  

“The anti-vaping education sucks,” agrees 19-year-old Monica from Boston. “I have a conspiracy [theory] it’s on purpose. They only mention anxiety or other very weak deterrents. The Truth PSAs genuinely make me and my friends laugh and hit our vapes in spite. There’s nothing on campus, either. All we hear about is alcohol and opioids.” 

The majority of people we interviewed said they never learned what nicotine withdrawal, quitting, or addiction is really like. Most of them definitely don’t expect to end up in the hospital, like 22-year-old Alex. “I really wish I knew how hard it is to stop. I’ve been vaping on and off since 2021,” she says. “There was one weekend I had more stress than usual because my cousin died. All Saturday and Sunday, I hit the vape every few minutes. Monday, I started having crazy chest pains, and I went to the ER.” They told her she had a bubble of air in the space between her lungs called pneumomediastinum, normally caused by a traumatic injury. The doctors told Alex it was likely caused by a combination of stress and the vape.

“I tried to quit, and had brutal mental health symptoms,” shares 20-year-old Monet. “I had severe depression, hopelessness, anxiety, and food cravings that messed with my body image. I’ve given up.”

When she tried to quit, homework and studying felt impossible. “I consider myself a very health-conscious person with exercise and nutrition, so I’m allowed to have this one thing.” 

It’s okay to ask for help. 

Breathwrk and Truth partnered to create this series of quitting-specific breathing exercises to help young people cut nicotine cravings and reach their quitting goals with science-backed techniques that curb cravings, strengthen lungs, and ease anxiety. 

This is Quitting is the first-of-its-kind free texting program for youth and young adults who want to quit vaping. The confidential 60-day program consists of texts with information, tips, and support. Sign up even if you’re not ready to quit – texts offer strategies to help build confidence and prepare for the day you are. Join for free by texting DITCHVAPE to 88709. 

EasyQuit is a highly-ranked app for iPhone and Android with several features, including a tracker for money saved, a slow mode for gradual quitting, memory games to fight cravings, and a log for keeping track of triggers. 

Kwit is a paid app that gamifies cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) specifically for quitting with lots of features. One of its standout functions is telling you how your skin has improved over time. 

The CDC’s app QuitSTART can be helpful to stay on track with goals by monitoring your progress and offering games that distract you from cravings. It also allows you to store helpful tips, inspirations, and challenges in your personalized Quit Kit.

Tobaccofreekids.org is a massive resource from one of the leading advocacy organizations working to reduce tobacco use and its deadly consequences in the United States and around the world. If you're looking for information and research on programs that stop youth smoking, start here. 

My Life, My Quit is a program to help young people quit vaping or other tobacco products. The program provides five free coaching sessions by phone or text. You can text “Start My Quit” to 36072.

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