The Power of Peer Learning to Combat E-Cigarette Use

From social media to (virtual) sports fields and remote classrooms, kids always find a way to be with their peers. Peers have an impact in every area of life, which can be a good tool for education. Research shows that peer-assisted programs, particularly on sensitive topics like drugs and alcohol, are more effective than teacher-facilitated programs. There are four reasons for this:

  • Peers nominated by their classmates are credible role models. The information they deliver is more likely to be believed and internalized.
  • Peers create new norms—norms that will persist outside the classroom.
  • Peer-delivered information is less intimidating because peers use local language, behaviors, and culture.
  • Peer-led programs are easier for teachers to implement and better enjoyed by students.

The peer-learning opportunity helps flip the negative connotation of peer-pressure on its head. Peer learning can be a valuable tool in public health to address difficult issues like e-cigarette use and vaping. When it comes to precocious behaviors, teens are heavily influenced by what they see their peer leaders doing. From 2017 to 2019, there was a 135% increase in high-school e-cigarette use and a 218% increase in middle-school e-cigarette use. Nicotine exposure – like that from e-cigarettes – in adolescence has been shown to harm brain development, which continues until age 25, and may also increase risk for future addiction to other drugs. The aerosol released by e-cigarettes is not harmless water vapor, but very well may contain cancer-causing chemicals, heavy metals, and almost always contains the addictive tobacco-derived compound, nicotine.

Programs – like CATCH My Breath – which is at the heart of the Be Vape Free initiative – turns the concept of peer pressure into something useful by focusing on peer learning. Targeted to students in grades 5-12, the program reaches students during an age they are likely to be exposed to or try e-cigarettes. As a peer lead program, CATCH My Breath helps educators keep students engaged while they learn the real facts about vaping through peer discussions. Working in groups, students collaborate to develop strategies for making healthy decisions and hone refusal techniques to avoid using e-cigarettes. Together, students learn the danger of vaping while also becoming empowered to think about big decisions in thoughtful and constructive ways.

Plus, the program’s modules are designed for wherever learning takes place and helps students collaborate by working in and learning from peer groups. They are then empowered as peer leaders and can encourage their friends to do the same. As another bonus, the Be Vape Free initiative keeps communities connected with lots of no-cost resources aligned to learning standards. When communities help youth come together, they can achieve big things, like becoming the first vape-free generation.