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Pitt study finds popular TV shows might help stop teens from vaping

Investigators have found that cannabis-containing vaping products are linked with many of the reported cases of vaping-related lung illness.
Mike Wren
Investigators have found that cannabis-containing vaping products are linked with many of the reported cases of vaping-related lung illness.

Compelling television is an effective way to talk to teens about the dangers of electronic cigarette use, often called vaping, according to a new study from the University of Pittsburgh.

In January 2020, Grey's Anatomy, New Amsterdam, and Chicago Med each aired episodes with storylines that featured an adolescent character hospitalized with lung injury due to e-cigarette use.

Pitt researchers showed clips from these shows to students at Arsenal Middle School and then asked the kids open-ended questions about the storylines and vaping. Lead author Beth Hoffman found that students were engaged and offered frank feedback on what they viewed, including questions about the marketing practices of tobacco companies.

Though some students laughed at over-the-top acting or dramatic storylines, researchers noted kids also seemed moved during specific clips. One-eighth grader even remarked: "That was better than any DARE program."

Pittsburgh-based therapist Lais Alexander has a number of clients who are teens and young adults. While she couldn't remark on the effectiveness of using TV shows to convince kids not to vape, she does think storytelling is a crucial way to connect with young people noting that her clients often strongly relate to song lyrics or movie characters. But if public health initiatives want to go this route, Alexander warns the content must be authentic.

"Sometimes the storyline or presentation or whatever looks more like lecturing … the approach doesn't click at all," said Alexander. "It makes them immediately push away."

Rita Kaplin, who retired last month after 25 years as a counselor at Freedom Area High School, was less optimistic about a TV show's ability to dissuade kids from vaping. In her experience, a teen's friends are more influential than TV shows or movies.

"Maybe if you put everything on TikTok, maybe they'll listen to that. Who knows?" said Kaplin. "They love their social media."

The Pitt study also found that many kids who participated didn't know that when they vape, they inhale a type of cigarette. So, when trying to educate kids about the dangers of products such as Juul, Hoffman's takeaway is you have to get kids and teens' help in developing effective language.

"If we were to design an anti-vaping campaign that uses the term e-cigarettes, it probably would be lost on our target population because that's not the words they're using," she said.

Eventually, Hoffman wants to create a library of clips from popular media that discuss the harms of tobacco, alcohol and other substances that health and science teachers can use to educate young people.

Sarah Boden