If you live in Melbourne—or anywhere really—you’ll be aware of the rise of disposable vapes and their many enthusiasts. Whether you’ve taken it up yourself, or simply walked through billowing clouds of lush ice on Chapel Street, there is no doubt that IGET, HQD, Vaporlax and Puff Bar have well and truly settled down in Melbourne.
Content warnings: depression, eating disorders, drugs
*Pseudonyms have been used to protect the privacy of interviewees*
If you live in Melbourne—or anywhere really—you’ll be aware of the rise of disposable vapes and their many enthusiasts. Whether you’ve taken it up yourself, or simply walked through billowing clouds of lush ice on Chapel Street, there is no doubt that IGET, HQD, Vaporlax and Puff Bar have well and truly settled down in Melbourne. They’re popped in the acrylic clutches of ‘Instagram girlies’, tucked away behind a wine glass in an Instagram photo dump, and in the Crumpler bag pockets of students at the pub.
Although vapes have been present in the zeitgeist since around 2016 (though more culturally emergent in H3h3’s viral parody ‘VAPE NATION’), it has been increasingly on the ‘up’ in Melbourne since 2018. First introduced as a fruit-flavoured, ‘less harmful’ alternative to smoking cigarettes, recent research has shown that only 1 in 3 people actually use e-cigarettes as a way to quit smoking. Instead, vapes have been colloquially established as a social activity akin to drinking alcohol, and for many younger people who had never touched cigarettes beforehand, a new slightly depraved addiction.
Backlash on vaping has predominantly been concerned with nicotine consumption and the physical consequences that have been linked to its use. Studies have mostly been concerning lung-related illnesses, but have also found cases of cardiovascular problems, increased systolic blood pressure and even seizures.
Despite multiple articles, op-eds, social media posts and TikTok videos detailing the physical side-effects linked to vaping, the habit has only continued to grow. Nearly one in ten Australians are using, or have formerly used, vape devices.
However, a consequence of vaping that has been significantly overlooked amidst the discourse is the relationship between vaping and mental health—more specifically, it’s link to depression and eating disorders.
“I started vaping in November 2021 and found it was some sort of relief,” says Cara, a student at the University of Melbourne.
Cara started vaping for the same reasons as many: social normalisation and an ill-informed ‘coolness’. However, after being diagnosed with depression, her relationship with vaping became fuelled by something deeper than a ‘fun thing to do’.
“I think that my addiction to vaping is largely dependent on my inability to create happiness and relaxation by myself, so I attach to something external that can provide me that. Something so easy, accessible, and socially accepted,” she tells me.
Studies have found a common link between vaping and depression. A 2019 study in the US showed that frequent vape users were 2.4 times more likely to receive a depression diagnoses than those who had never vaped.
“I feel I am able to recognise how strong my dependence on my vape is after being diagnosed with depression and experiencing it’s difficulties,” she tells me.
“Vaping makes me feel relaxed, less stressed, happy and gives me a weird sense of detachment. Vaping for me…calms me down and is like a coping mechanism for when I feel my world is too stressful,” Cara continues.
Although there is little research on vaping as a coping mechanism for depression, as it is for Cara, vaping to cope saw a predictable increase during the heights of COVID-19. A Canadian study showed us that 9.3% of participants associated vaping as a way to cope during the pandemic – a trend that has intensified post-lockdown, as people were once again hit with the stresses of everyday life.
Vaping for many, much like smoking, has been associated with the alleviation of uncomfortable feelings. Yet it’s so normalised that many don’t recognise their emotional dependence. This emotional dependence becomes even more damaging when ‘vapers’ can’t access any healthy or positive reappraisals to counter their negative emotions. Instead of quality mental health care, many are relying solely on that one, watermelon-guava-flavoured stick.
Another sinister counterpart of vaping is its relationship with eating disorders and restrictive eating. This connection between spoking and disordered eating is somewhat known, but there have also been studies conducted that prove a correlation between frequent vaping and attempted weight loss. The link is predominantly due to vaping’s ability to suppress hunger. I’ve seen it happen around me and mentioned on TikTok, yet it’s a topic that remains largely undiscussed and, concerningly, normalised.
“The funny thing is that after vaping for maybe six months, I quit temporarily but then found myself gaining weight as a result of eating more… which eventuated in my taking vaping back up again,” says student Lucinda.
Furthermore, a December 2021 study of college students showed that there was a significant association between students who vape, and those who have a lifetime eating disorder or a risk of developing one. Although no cause-and-effect relationship was established between the two – the social commentary around vaping and eating disorders on social media and that I have observed, suggests that eating disorders can cause the taking up of vaping.
The socialisation of this is especially prevalent on TikTok, with several videos claiming a morning routine of an iced coffee and a vape, is self-proclaimed “hot girl behaviour”—the comments flooded with relieved calls of relatability.
Sadly, the use of nicotine as an appetite suppressant in young girls and women isn’t a new trend (we all know the “noughties, model off duty, cigarette and diet coke” aesthetic). However, vaping provides a more discrete means by which to do this, notably because you can puff them inside without any lasting smell of tobacco. The ability for vapes to be secretly smoked is a concerning aspect of their association with eating disorders, especially for adolescents that still live at home.
“It’s a vicious fucking cycle as I’m afraid that if I quit again, I’ll end up gaining weight because when I vape, it takes away my hunger cues as there’s always something going in my body, it just isn’t necessarily food”, Lucinda laments.
Socialisation of vapes
On paper, the ingestion of nicotine—whether it is through a vape or cigarettes—is an obvious detriment to mental health. However, what is more concerning to me, is the social disparity between vapes and cigarettes. Vapes are viewed as significantly more socially acceptable, especially among younger people. This was observed in a study of high schoolers in Mexico—but I’ve personally seen the same confusing socialisation of vapes around me in Melbourne.
The same people who scrunch their noses at cigarette smokers are the ones that gladly motor through three sticks of a grape-flavoured vaporiser a week.
In terms of physical consequences, there are studies that outline the differences, benefits and disadvantages of vaping and smoking. Yet, with mental health, the effects of the two instruments are largely the same. The difference with vaping is that it’s a lot easier to hide, especially with young people that live at home.
Ultimately, with vaping continuing its rise, and cementing as a core construct in our social lives, it’s important to acknowledge its potential consequences that exist below the surface.
“It feels embarrassing that I depend so emotionally on something that seems so normal to everyone else,” laments Cara.
“If I try to quit and then see other people doing it, it just reaffirms to me that it’s just something people do, and I forget about the negative effects it has on my mental health and go back to buy another one.”