Vaping illustration by Regan Hutchinson of Selah High School.

“Clout” isn’t a word one often hears outside of the hallways of a high school. But, according to one local teenager, the desire to have clout — defined by the Urban Dictionary as respect or approval from higher figures — is one of the main reasons for the recent rise in the number students using e-cigarettes.

Despite record low levels of young people smoking traditional tobacco products, the National Tobacco Survey reports that the number of teens using e-cigarettes on a regular basis jumped by almost 78 percent between 2017 and 2018. It doesn’t take more than a quick scroll through any social media platform to identify vaping as a clear culprit.

“Teenagers have a desire to feel included,” says “Sarah,” a 17-year-old student from the Yakima Valley. “It’s just like wearing certain brands. In the grand scheme of things, whether you have Balenciaga shoes or not doesn’t matter, but for the clout, for the respect, for the inner circle inclusion. It’s kind of a big deal to some people.”

In an interview describing her experiences with vaping, Sarah explained that a lot of students aren’t fully aware of the risks associated with the use of vaping devices such as e-cigarettes or Juuls — small, flash drive-shaped devices that are loaded with pods containing high concentration of nicotine.

“It’s become kind of a joke or an accepted quirk,” she says, adding that students will have competitions to see who can blow the biggest smoke rings, get away with vaping during class, or hide their vaping devices in the most creative ways.

Sarah emphasizes that this wasn’t the original intent of these devices: “I believe the intended use of e-cigarettes and vaping in general was to get people off of smoking cigarettes.”

The way she sees it, there are two sides to vaping: Those who do it “for the clout” and those who are using it for its intended purpose. While she doesn’t recommend vaping to those who don’t have a clear reason for starting, many people, including herself, have found ways to use vaping as a positive tool.

Sarah’s first experiences with vaping occurred when she was 16 and some of her friends from her job had their own vapes.

“I wasn’t super into it, but at that point I was also smoking weed,” she explains. “People were like, if you smoke weed then you might as well vape.”

So she tried it once or twice, but vaping didn’t become a large part of her life until slightly later, when she realized she was struggling with a drug addiction.

“I got into some other stuff that wasn’t so great,” she says. “When I was first addicted to all of these substances, I was in total denial.”

Sarah relates that she’s always been a good student. So when her grades dropped dramatically — “from A’s and B’s all the way down to the floor” — that was when she started to recognize the severity of her problem.

“My motivation had shifted from my grades and my learning to doing drugs. Looking back, I don’t know how I didn’t know. It got in the way of everything.”

As she recalls: “When I started trying to get rid of all of the substances, that was when the serious vaping started.”

Throughout her addiction recovery, she described getting cravings, “just like if you were to eat a food for a really long time, and then you couldn’t eat that food anymore.”

When her friends went out to smoke, Sarah sometimes felt like she was missing out on the fun. Any time she felt tempted to smoke marijuana or engage in other harmful activities, she would vape instead.

“There’s a little bit of a head high from vaping, almost more like a special kind of headache,” she explains. “That made me more comfortable, instead of having the fear of missing out and the cravings.”

She knew that vaping didn’t come without its own risks but, for Sarah, the possibility of a nicotine addiction was much easier to accept than the reality of a drug addiction. During the first few months of her addiction recovery, Sarah described feeling the urge to vape quite often. Even so, she was careful to vape as responsibly as possible.

“I had a system where I would switch between nicotine contents, and then every once in a while I would go to a vape juice with no nicotine, so it was kind of like a placebo for my brain.”

Now, she’s been clean of all substances with the exception of nicotine for more than eight months. She rarely feels the need to vape, and she sees herself eventually quitting vaping altogether.

“It’s not like I have an addiction to vape or a dependency on it. It’s more of like my fallback at this point. Right now I’m in the process of switching it over to caffeine.”

One of Sarah’s major motivations for trying to quit vaping is the fear that her parents might find out.

“I had my juice hidden in my room, and my charger, and my actual vape was hidden all of the time. It got to be a lot going on.”

She described that drinking a lot of caffeine has helped her feel the need to vape less often, and she eventually plans to switch from caffeine to fizzy drinks.

“For me, vaping was just a period of my life, but I know other people who are dependent on it, and they have to have their Juul with them at all times. It’s very different.”

Then she adds: “It’s not like vape is this terrible, horrible thing. There are plenty of people like me who are using it for its purpose.”

Looking back at the response she had from some of those who know her, Sarah recalls: “From people who knew that I was vaping but didn’t know why I was vaping — that I was coming off of an addiction — I would get shamed for it all the time.”

She emphasizes that these harsh negative comments aren’t helpful. Instead, Sarah feels we have to look at what could be going on behind the scenes.

“Everyone has a background, even the people that are doing it for the clout chasing. Why do they feel the need to have clout?”

Sarah has also applied this logic to addiction in general:

“No one chooses to become addicted to anything. They know that it’s not good for them. That’s not the part that they can’t get over. It’s the fact that their body is chemically and physiologically drawn to it.”

While she agrees that action should be taken reduce the number of teens using these products, she’s not sure exactly how to go about this change. She believes it’s hard for schools to cut down on vaping, since they don’t know why each student started vaping.

“There’s a reason for everything that happens, so I think we need to be more empathetic towards the people that have these problems.”

Sarah isn’t proud of what she’s been through, but her story is the perfect reminder to consider multiple perspectives of every issue. While teen nicotine use is nothing to be taken lightly, everyone’s experiences are unique to themselves.

It’s just like considering the fact that if someone is mean to you, it might be because someone else was mean to them first.

“That’s kind of cliché, but it has a truth to it,” Sarah explains. “Especially for these kinds of things, because no one smokes cigarettes because they want to become addicted to them.”Kathryn Conley is a senior at Davis High School.