The Teen Vaping Trends We’re Not Talking About

    Teen cannabis and nicotine vaping spiked between January 2018 and January 2019, a widely-cited US survey on adolescent drug use highlighted in its December 18 press release. Less emphasized was the finding that overall marijuana use didn’t rise, which suggests that teens are simply switching consumption methods. Additionally, the cigarette smoking rates hit record lows. Meanwhile teens’ perceptions of nicotine and THC vaping’s harms increased.

    Teens in the eighth, 10th and 12th grades saw increases in past-month THC vaping, found the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey. High school seniors’ use jumped by 6 percentage points, up to a 14 percent use rate; sophomores and youth in their final year of middle school saw lower single-digit increases.

    But total marijuana use remained “relatively steady” between January of 2018 and 2019, wrote Director Nora D. Volkow of National Institute on Drug Abuse, the federal research agency conducting the MTF survey. The increase in THC vaping as overall marijuana use went unchanged could be a “sign of a changed route of administration but not overall increased prevalence of use,” noted one harm reduction advocate.

    Vaping nicotine also increased for the three surveyed grades, with one-quarter of all surveyed seniors and one-fifth of all sophomore reporting having used within the past month. (Of course, having used at all within the past month is completely different from dependence, as many experts, such as Clive Bates for Filter, have noted.)

    While the best available evidence estimates vaping nicotine to be at least 95 percent less harmful than smoking cigarettes, that does not mean it has no harms; experts advise against vaping if you don’t already smoke. In light of the upward trend of youth vaping, a key public health leader suggested that teens are vaping without being aware of the risks, yet the MTF data suggest otherwise.

    Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tweeted that “We must educate our youth of the dangers of using e-cigarettes!” Yet 38 percent of 12th-graders reported that they perceived vaping nicotine regularly to be harmful—a 10 percentage point increase on the previous year. Their younger counterparts in the 10th and 8th grades perceived the harms of nicotine vaping at similar rates (40 and 41 percent, respectively), also marking significant increases.

    The survey did not report data on the perceived harms of THC vaping.

    The two decade decline in past-month combustible cigarette use continued into January 2019, hitting  all-time lows of 5 percent among high school seniors and 3 percent among sophomores. Eighth-graders’ use seems to be hovering around 2 percent. A press release by University of Michigan, which participates in conducting the survey, explained this by the cohort effect, where “younger, lighter smoking cohorts replace older ones.”

    Photograph of a person holding an e-cigarette device; by TBEC Review via Wikimedia Commons

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