Anil, who just completed his freshman year at a high school in Cupertino, California, has struggled with depression and anxiety since he was 11 years old.

“Being a teen can be hard sometimes,” he says.

As he started high school, Anil’s neighbor introduced him to his friends: a group of older boys, mostly Indian Americans like him. His new friends introduced him to the secret many high schoolers across the nation share: vaping.

Asian Flavored Nicotine

The Food and Drug Administration reports that 2 million children under the age of 18 currently use e-cigarettes; as many as 10 million kids are at risk for trying the products. Asian American teens from high-income families are an especially alluring market for e-cigarette manufacturers, who create “Asian flavored” nicotine such as egg tart and mangosteen, to hook them in.

Indian American teenagers — especially boys — are acutely vulnerable to becoming addicted to vaping. Young Indian American boys often exist in the margins of their school’s social ecosystems: trying to fit in is paramount. Vaping is a means to bridge the social divide. Kids who manage to fit in with the vaping crowd are often bullied to provide nicotine and cannabis-based e-cigarettes. Many resort to stealing from their parents in order to provide the goods demanded by their peers.

Burn One Down

High-achieving boys often resort to vaping weed to take the pressure off of the rigors of academic success. Vaped weed is hard to trace: unlike bongs, blunts, or joints, vapes emit very little odor.

In 2019, almost four percent of Asian American middle schoolers and 13.7 percent of Asian American high schoolers were current users of e-cigarettes, compared with 27.5 percent of high schoolers and 10.5 percent of middle schoolers overall, according to data released by the Truth Initiative.

Experiencing Discrimination

Almost 11 percent of Indian Americans have a lifetime use of e-cigarettes, according to research published in the Journal of Ethnicity in Substance Abuse. More than one-fifth of Asian American high schoolers endorse a lifetime of e-cigarettes. Those who have experienced discrimination tend to have higher levels of vaping noted the researchers.

Young male in red hoodie vaping smoking, blows 3 smoke rings. Naveen Asaithambi/IStock photo (standard license)

Conversely, financial struggles are associated with lower rates of vaping, perhaps because of the cost. The initial outlay for a vaping pen ranges from $30 to $150. Cartridges filled with nicotine or marijuana can cost from $50 to $80.

Coping With Depression

Anil and his friends — like many Indian American boys who vape — eschew nicotine in favor of marijuana. Kids have been warned of the dangers of nicotine from multiple school assemblies; thus there is a stigma attached to vaping “nic.” No such taint exists for vaping weed, he says.

“Weed lifts my spirits and helps me cope with my depression. But then I started to abuse it a little. It kind of felt essential every day,” says Anil. “Sativa is a head high, so you can feel euphoric, giggly, relaxed or have no filter sometimes. Hybrid is both Indica and Sativa. You get the head high from the Sativa and the body high from the Indica. Sativa is more of a daytime use and Indica is more for nightime use and sleep.”

“I am definitely not going to quit marijuana in my life, cause I like it,” says Anil.

School Bullying

Karthik, who will begin his senior year at a high school in Fremont this fall, says he got into the habit of vaping weed as a youngster, when older kids bullied him to buy up for them.

“When I was a sophomore, the older kids would pester me to buy for them. There were kids on campus who were selling: $80 for a cartridge, but sometimes there were deals. I didn’t smoke before then, but when I bought, they made me smoke with them.”

“Before I started vaping, I was by myself a lot. Now I’m not. It makes going to high school easier,” he says.

The Dreaded 4.3

Jagannath — nicknamed Jag — will begin his senior year at a high school in Palo Alto this fall. He has been vaping weed since he was 13. “There is so much pressure on me to do well in school. I had four AP classes last semester and I knew I had to get at least a 4.5 GPA in all of them. I spent so many sleepless nights, with my mind racing all over the place.”

“Vaping weed calms me down: it is euphoric. I’m not thinking about my responsibilities for a while,” says Jag.

Vaping, health risks and causes of death concept. Tumsa Edgars/IStock photo (standard license)

“So many AP kids vape. There is so much pressure on us, especially in junior year,” he adds. Some kids at his school, especially young women, do edibles — sweet treats laced with THC — but Jag prefers to vape. “It hits you much faster. It goes directly in your bloodstream.” THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects.

Lung Injuries

“I’m sure I’m going to be vaping weed in college. I know I’m going to need something to help me cope,” he says. His advice to kids who vape: keep your drugs on your person at all times so that your parents don’t find them, and keep eye drops for red or watery eyes.

Dr. Manisha Newaskar, a pediatric pulmonologist at Stanford Children’s Health, says she is alarmed by the spike she is seeing in vaping-related lung injuries.

“We have seen severe lung injury related to vaping, especially THC products. Teens have ended up in the ICU very sick and needing ventilator support,” she says.

“Some have had more subacute presentation with chronic cough, trouble breathing, shortness of breath, and poor exercise tolerance,” says Newaskar.

Brain Development

Moreover, says the pediatrician, cannabis use can cause altered development in some parts of the brain. Recent studies published in JAMA Psychiatry and Frontiers in Psychiatry note that cannabis use during the critical neurodevelopmental period of adolescence may lead to brain structural, functional, and histological alterations. Such alterations could lead to longer-term behavioral and psychological harms.

Another study found that teens who regularly use marijuana lose an average of 5.8 IQ points by the time they reach adulthood. A recent study found that marijuana has a more negative impact on a teenager’s cognitive development than alcohol.

Warning Signs

Typical signs that your child is vaping weed include: a dramatic increase in appetite, lower attention span, forgetfulness, changes in sleep patterns or moods, more secrecy, and elusive conversations.

Parijat Deshpande, founder of My Sahana — which aims to bridge the gap between the South Asian American community and mental health resources, and erase the stigma surrounding mental illness — acknowledges the pressures children have in middle and high school, which may lead to substance abuse.

Model Minority

“The model minority myth really kicks into gear in middle and high school. ‘You’re Asian. You must be smart. There’s a lot of pressure to fit in and behave according to stereotype. And anytime there’s a stereotype, it does isolate kids, and force them to question their identity,” she says.

“The pressure of academic rigor is enormous. At MySahana, I saw a lot of parents with kids in 7th and 8th grade asking about how to prepare for college. The youngest I met were a pair of twin 6th graders.”

“Academic rigor manifests itself in depression and anxiety, and impacts self esteem. There is definitely a close connection between depression, anxiety, and substance abuse,” says Deshpande. “Children are doing whatever they can just to cope.”

Many Faces Of Success

She advises parents to look at their children differently. “There are several faces of success. Look at the individual you have the privilege of raising, and see them for who they really are.”

If a parent discovers their child is vaping, Deshpande advises against reproachment, which may only serve to further alienate the youngster. “Set up an open dialogue with your children, so that they can talk to you. And when you’re ready, ask for permission to talk to them with their consent.”

“This could be as easy as: ‘Hey, I wanted to ask you about school. When is a good time to chat?’”

Deshpande also recommends getting professional help from a counselor, therapist, or coach. “We are not meant to figure this out on our own,” she says.

This story was produced with support from the Statewide Pacific Islander Asian American Resource and Coordinating Center (SPARC).

Sunita Sohrabji is the Health Editor at Ethnic Media Services.