Big jump in teen e-cigarette use despite public outcry over vaping perils

5 December 2019
Sarah Owermohle

More that 27 percent of high schoolers and 10.5 percent of middle schoolers reported vaping in the last 30 days.

Data released Thursday reveal a big increase in e-cigarette use by high school students, with more than a quarter saying they vape despite a lung disease epidemic and widespread public health outcry that has pitted President Donald Trump against congressional Democrats.

More that 27 percent of high schoolers and 10.5 percent of middle schoolers reported vaping in the last 30 days, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey data, which was presented to the White House in September.

After seeing it, Trump said he was ordering FDA to quickly issue a widespread flavor ban. After convening meetings that included industry executives and free-market advocates, however, he said a compromise was needed to assure that regulation didn’t kill jobs in the vaping industry or fuel a black market.

Last year’s youth survey found 21 percent of teenagers used vapes. But a CDC official said the data from 2018 and 2019 were not exactly comparable because officials administered the survey slightly differently this year.

Congressional Democrats have attacked Trump for backing off his initial promise. A White House official told POLITICO this week that the president will “soon” be presented with “some options” on how to proceed.

For the sixth year in a row, e-cigarettes were the most commonly used tobacco products among both high school and middle school students, according to the survey.

Overall, about 6.2 million teens were using some type of tobacco product including cigarettes, cigars, hookah, smokeless and pipe tobacco products, according to the CDC. Cigarette use fell in 2019, continuing a decline every year since in 2011, while use of other products remained roughly the same.

“Our nation’s youth are becoming increasingly exposed to nicotine, a drug that is highly addictive and can harm brain development,” CDC Director Robert Redfield said in a release.

Last year’s data — showing a reversal in two decades of declining tobacco use — propelled a sweeping proposal from then-FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb to curb sales of sweet and fruit-flavored e-cigarettes in stores and on websites that cannot verify buyers’ age. “In order to close the on-ramp for kids, we are going to have to narrow the off-ramp for adults,” Gottlieb said at the time.

E-cigarette giant Juul this fall pulled most of its own flavors off the market after new national data showed their appeal to teens. Juul has been the focal point of state and federal probes on marketing that lawmakers say targeted youth.

More than 86 percent of teens told CDC in the survey that they had contact with potential tobacco advertisements or promotions, including nearly 60 percent saying that contact happened on the internet.

Students were divided on how harmful occasional vaping could be. Twenty-eight percent said that intermittent e-cigarette use caused little to no harm, while 32 percent said it could cause a lot of harm.

FDA will continue to develop policies to prevent teen tobacco use and use “aggressive enforcement and compliance efforts” along with public education campaigns, said acting FDA commissioner Admiral Brett Giroir.

On Wednesday, FDA’s director for the Center of Tobacco Products Mitch Zeller dodged questions from House Democrats on the status of the administration’s stalled flavor ban and whether menthol products would be excluded, saying the matter was under review.

FDA originally put both options — a ban including menthol and one that carved it out — on the table, Zeller said.

Recently published data from the government’s Monitoring the Future survey, which focused on Juul in particular, found that while mint flavor was very popular among teens, few used menthol. The youth survey did not separate menthol from mint flavors.