Where a pack of cigarettes used to be secretly passed around in the schoolyard, today's digital Generation Z starts smoking with an e-cigarette. But the step to a box of ordinary fags is short - and increasingly common practice.
This is how it starts today: With a brightly colored vape, the youngster comes into contact with nicotine for the first time. It tastes like cola or peach passion fruit. The white smoke doesn't look too bad - and it smells good too. Or at least not for smoke. The disposable vapes, which look like highlighters or USB sticks, are always handy and can be easily ordered online. The problem: "They are completely played down," explains Karin Vitzthum, a psychologist at the Institute for Tobacco Cessation and Smoking Prevention at the Vivantes Lung Cancer Center.
Because that's often not the end of it. The disposable vape will soon become a real cigarette. And then another. More and more young people are now turning to tobacco products. This is shown by the latest results of the German survey on smoking behavior (DEBRA study). Accordingly, the proportion of tobacco smokers among 14 to 17 year olds has almost doubled in the past twelve months: from 8.7 to 15.9 percent. The extrapolated figures mean that there are around 200,000 more underage smokers than in 2021. Since the DEBRA study began in 2016, there has never been such a high rate of tobacco smoking among young people as it is now.
Researchers are still unable to say exactly why young people are starting to smoke cigarettes again. In terms of time, however, one can assume that the pandemic will play a major role in the new, yet frightening, statistics. The lockdown, the closed bars and leisure facilities offered few opportunities to let off steam and make new experiences. "But the young people still want to test their limits," says Vitzthum.
The small disposable vapes are perfect for this. In the lockdown, everything was delivered to your home anyway, including electronic cigarettes, of course. So access was secured. Switching to the pack of Marlboro is much easier once you know the nicotine high you get from vapes.
Then there is the stress factor. It is true that a stressed young person who has never smoked will not directly reach for cigarettes in order to relax. But those with smoking adults around may have seen more cigarettes at home during the pandemic. Incidentally, the same applies to other intoxicants such as alcohol - children and adolescents learn early on that tobacco and alcohol often serve as a crutch for adults in times of stress. "They grow up knowing that if I'm not feeling well, I'll smoke one," explains Vitzthum.
Those who aren't watching it at home are increasingly getting it shown on Netflix or social media. While in the 80s and 90s advertising posters showed smoking as something "cool", today the pop-culturalization of smoking takes place in series and on the Internet. Netflix series main characters are suddenly puffing on cigarettes again - and they're always the cool ones. On Tiktok, many gamers and influencers are sucking on the colorful vapes.
This media consumption plays a particularly important role at the age of 13 and 14, says Vitzthum. At this age, young people switch from children's programs to Netflix. While smoking is absolutely taboo on KiKa, the cool main character Maeve often picks up a fag on the Netflix show "Sex Education". "If a climate is created in which smoking is cool, a smoking epidemic can develop very quickly in the circle of friends," explains Vitzthum.
But not everywhere smoking is cool again. In New Zealand, 1.1 percent of young people between the ages of 15 and 17 smoke. In 2006, the figure was still 14 percent. The country wants to raise a virtually smoke-free generation. Anyone born after 2008 should never be allowed to legally buy cigarettes in the island state. This is exactly the generation that is beginning to smoke more in Germany.
In an EU comparison, Germany does very little to support effective smoking cessation. In the tobacco control scale, the Federal Republic ranks 34th out of 37, behind countries such as Cyprus, Croatia and the Ukraine. In Germany, measures such as neutral packaging and higher taxes are still missing: in France, all cigarette packs now look the same - brown, with a shock image. The brand is only noted in small letters. In Ireland, a box of Marlboro costs 13.78 euros, in France 10 euros - in Germany it was only 7 euros in 2021.
Young people are now paying the price for the lack of smoking cessation measures. Under the hashtag