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SWEET TOOTH

High schoolers are still vaping like crazy

Two teenagers using e-cigarettes
AP Photo/Richard Vogel
Puffing up.
Katherine Ellen Foley
By Katherine Ellen Foley

Health and science reporter

Every year that the Monitoring the Future Survey has asked US teenagers about their e-cigarette use, more and more of them have reported vaping.

Today, researchers from the University of Michigan, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) released 2019 survey results featuring responses from over 42,000 teenagers across nearly 400 public and private schools in the US. The survey, which has been administered every January since 1975, asks teenagers about their use of all kinds of substances, from drugs to alcohol to tobacco.

It only started asking specially about e-cigarettes and other vape products four years ago. But even over that short period, vaping has skyrocketed.

In 2019, over one in four high school seniors reported vaping at least once in the last 30 days. One in five tenth graders did, and one in 10 eighth graders did as well. “Teenagers are influenced by their peers and have also been brought up by technology,” says Nora Volkow, NIDA’s director. “It leads them to experiment.”

The other main driver of teenage vaping? Flavors. Roughly 41% of seniors in high school say they vape “because it tastes good,” according to the survey.

Earlier this year, top US health officials and President Trump floated the idea of banning flavored e-cigarettes, in large part because sweet tastes are a major draw for teenagers who are new to vaping. (The administration didn’t go through with it.) More new vapers means more nicotine-addicted teenagers, despite the fact that teenagers aren’t smoking as many cigarettes as they used to.

It’s not just nicotine that teens are vaping, though. Increasingly, teenagers are using e-cigarettes to smoke weed.

Interestingly, most of the teenagers who vape marijuana also report smoking it in traditional joints, Volkow says. She thinks that one of the major reasons for the increase in marijuana vaping is that it’s more covert than other methods of getting high. It’s also easier to deliver a more potent punch: Because people can become tolerant to THC, the high-inducing chemical in marijuana, many need to smoke more in order to feel the same effects. Vaping makes it easier to deliver higher concentrations of THC.

The prospect of vaping getting more kids hooked on nicotine is potentially more concerning than giving existing high school stoners a new way to get high. But there’s one thing about THC vaping that’s especially worrisome: Its connection to the spate of vaping-related acute lung illnesses over the last year. As of earlier this month, there have been over 2,400 cases of the illness in the US, including 52 deaths. And while clinicians still aren’t sure what ingredients are causing the problem, the majority of the cases have been seen in people who were vaping THC.

Without a flavoring ban, there aren’t any big-picture policy ideas in the works to dissuade teens from vaping. Meanwhile, the survey is set to start up again early in the new year: It’s highly likely that growing public concern over these severe lung illnesses have already started influencing teens’ vaping habits.

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