Just in time for the new school year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is not letting a good non-crisis go to waste.
A series of videos published on Labor Day once again sound the alarm on youth vaping, urging educators—from coaches to principals to teachers—to talk to their students about it. The videos serve up a few morsels of truth with large helpings of fear-mongering and misinformation.
We should no longer be surprised by such fare from the nation’s leading health authorities. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently admitted its failure—if not its culpability—in communicating relative risks of nicotine and tobacco products, with growing ignorance among health professionals and the public.
“Tell your students about how nicotine exposure can cause addiction and can harm learning, memory, and attention.”
In “Get the Facts on Youth Vaping,” the CDC’s video description urges educators, “Tell your students about how nicotine exposure can cause addiction and can harm learning, memory, and attention.” The video relays that nicotine can harm “the developing brain.”
There is no valid evidence to support these claims.
The video also states that nicotine vapes “can contain harmful and potentially harmful substances, such as heavy metals and cancer-causing chemicals.”
While that’s technically true, the lack of context is dishonest. There is no mention of the low exposure involved in vaping, when numerous household items also expose people to traces of such chemicals. Nor of the absence of solid evidence to link vaping with cancer in humans. Nor, naturally, of the relative risks of vapes and cigarettes.
In “What Are the Health Risks of Vaping for Youth?” the CDC states that youth are more susceptible than adults to nicotine addiction, which “may put youth at a risk for addiction to other substances in the future”—a version of the “gateway theory” that simply isn’t supported by meaningful evidence.
The CDC darkly warns of students “not acting like themselves” as a sign of nicotine addiction.
The video also doubles down on the developing brain schtick—as does “Talk to Your Students About Vaping,” which darkly warns of students “not acting like themselves” as a sign of nicotine addiction.
The videos do acknowledge that some students “might vape when stressed, creating a cycle of nicotine addiction,” and urge educators to “empower your students with positive coping skills,” including physical activities and healthy diets.
A few realities are buried in the scientifically dubious drivel.
For example, in “How You Can Support Youth Who Are Quitting Vaping,” the CDC suggests that youth be informed that “vaping is less common than they might think.”
That is quite the turnaround from the agency that declared a youth vaping “epidemic” in 2018. Just last year, the CDC’s chief epidemiologist told media that the “e-cigarette epidemic in our country is far from over.”
It is over, if it even existed in the first place.
In 2018 when the CDC first announced the epidemic, 20.8 percent of high school students reported “current” use—meaning they’d vaped even once in the past 30 days. This grew to 27.5 percent in 2019. Some concern over the sharp increases was understandable, even if youth use of deadly cigarettes continued to decline as vaping rose.
The FDA is no longer using the term “epidemic” to describe youth vaping. This hasn’t stopped certain public health groups continuing their well-worn battle cry.
By 2022, only 14.1 percent of US high schoolers reported currently vaping. While media hyped a 27.8 percent increase from 2021’s levels, the 2022 figure was still a 32.2 percent decrease since the epidemic declaration—and a whopping 48.7 percent decline from 2019’s peak.
Earlier this year, the head of the Center for Tobacco Products at the FDA declared that the agency in charge of regulating vapes is no longer using the term “epidemic” to describe youth vaping.
This hasn’t stopped certain eager public health groups continuing their well-worn battle cry. The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network applauded the CDC’s new video series, remarking that there is a need for “continued awareness and action to address the epidemic of e-cigarette use by youth.”
The Foundation is currently tracking vape unit sales on its webpage titled “Monitoring E-Cigarette Use Among Youth,” a project funded by $10.5 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies. According to the Foundation page “the availability of flavored e-cigarettes is one of the most commonly cited reasons for e-cigarette use among youth.”
By spreading misguided fears, the CDC helps ensure that people who smoke face obstacles to accessing far safer alternatives.
As the CDC video series actually notes, the “most common reason students give for continuing to vape is ‘I’m feeling anxious, stressed, or depressed.’” In 2021, nearly half (43.4 percent) of US middle and high school students who vape reported doing so to self-medicate those feelings. Only 13.2 percent cited flavors as a reason for continued use. Similarly, among students who had only tried vapes, 13.4 percent reported flavors as a reason for doing so.
Vape flavors remain a key factor for adults who use them to quit the cigarettes that kill almost half a million people annually in the US.
Despite mixing some truths in with its alarmism, the CDC’s latest contribution to the discussion is another public health failure. By spreading misguided fears, it helps ensure that people who smoke face obstacles to accessing far safer alternatives.
Screenshot from CDC video “Understanding the Mental Health Effects of Youth Vaping“