What’s leading more teens to try vaping? Study finds ‘alarming’ rise

17 December 2018
Jessica Glenza
The Guardian

Research shows 1.3 million more teens vaped in 2018 over last year, however cigarette smoking fell to its lowest level since 1975

A survey has found an “alarming” rise in vaping among teens last year, including a dramatic surge among high school seniors. More than 1 in 3 seniors said they vaped last year, 10 times the number who smoke cigarettes and a nearly 10% increase year-over-year.

The survey only started tracking vaping in 2011, when prevalence was “near-zero”, and it measured the increase in vaping over the school year from 2017 to 2018. Researchers said the recent one-year increase translates into an additional 1.3 million adolescents who vaped in 2018.

“Teens are clearly attracted to the marketable technology and flavorings seen in vaping devices,” said Dr Nora D Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “However, it is urgent that teens understand the possible effects of vaping on overall health; the development of the teen brain; and the potential for addiction.”

The news comes just one month after Juul, which makes the country’s most popular vape pen, suspended social media accounts and stopped selling mango-flavored pods popular among teens in stores. The company had nearly doubled its sales by August according to CNBC, to $2.31bn.

According to the research, 37.3% of 12th grade students (typically 17- to 18-years-old) reported “any vaping” in the last 12 months. The rate of vaping nicotine specifically in the last 30 days nearly doubled, from 11% to 20.9%.

Meanwhile, the rate of cigarette smoking fell to 3.6% daily, the lowest level since the survey began in 1975. The findings are part of a US government survey of nearly 45,000 middle and high school students, called Monitoring the Future.

The benefits and harms of vaping have sharply divided the international public health community, as public health agencies in America and the UK have taken starkly different positions on the products.

In the UK, researchers argue smoking rates declined in tandem with vaping, and have even suggested putting the devices in hospital gift shops. At the same time, US experts have argued vaping could lead teens to cigarette use.

Volkow said the new survey shows agencies “must continue aggressive educational efforts on all products containing nicotine”, because of the risk of teens switching from vaping to smoking cigarettes.

Juul is by far the most popular brand of e-cigarette in the US, controlling roughly 70% of the market. The device is about the size of a USB stick, and comes in flavors such as cucumber and mango, which critics have argued appeal to children.

In the face of criticism, the company suspended its Instagram account in November and pulled mango-flavored products from inside stores – the flavor is now available only online.

However, the FDA has struggled to contain the popularity of vaping, as images of teens vaping spread through social media memes and celebrities such as Kylie Jenner.

An opportunity to regulate vaping products more broadly was postponed by the FDA when Donald Trump took office. Public health groups brought a lawsuit against the agency this year to end the delay. At the same time, the American manufacturer of Marlboro cigarettes, Altria Group, is in talks to take a minority stake in Juul. The San Francisco company has argued its products help smokers quit.

At the same time as vaping has gained ground, the rate of teens smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and using opioids dropped over the last five years. Marijuana use has remained steady.

“We are encouraged to see continued declines in a variety of measures of underage alcohol use,” said George F Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.