Flavored nicotine e-cigarettes
Flavored nicotine e-cigarettes
Photo: Getty Images

The teens are smoking nicotine, drinking alcohol, and using illegal drugs less than ever before, according to U.S. government data released Wednesday. Yet a new report highlights that they’re also increasingly vaping cannabis and nicotine.

The report, published in JAMA, is based on data from the annual Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey, which polls a nationally representative sample of over 40,000 eighth, 10th, and 12th graders across the country. The survey’s full results were released Wednesday on the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s website.

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In general, the news is good, according to Jack Stein, chief of staff and director of the Office of Science Policy and Communications at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“We’re seeing cigarette use has dropped. We’ve seen declines in alcohol use. And we’ve seen an overall decline in the rate of illicit drug use, excluding marijuana,” Smith told Gizmodo by phone. “So that is saying that kids are doing something right. They’re getting the right messages around prevention.”

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Only 5.7 percent of 12th graders had smoked a cigarette in the past 30 days, down from 13.6 percent five years ago. And just 2.4 percent of 12th graders said they smoked daily. Teens are also experimenting less with alcohol and binge drinking.

In the past year, 3.6 percent of 12th graders also reported using LSD; 3.3 percent said they used synthetic cannabinoids; 2.2 percent said they used cocaine or MDMA; and 0.4 percent said they used heroin. All told, the number of teens (11.5 percent) reporting any illicit drug use besides cannabis in the past year shrank slightly from 2018.

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But, according to a report published this September also based on the MTF survey, the rate of nicotine e-cigarette use in teens has dramatically increased over the past few years. About a quarter of 12th graders had vaped nicotine in the past month, along with a fifth of 10th graders and nearly 1 in 10 eighth graders. Nearly 12 percent of 12th graders are vaping every day. And a similar pattern can be seen for vaping cannabis.

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In the past year, one in every five 12th graders has vaped cannabis at least once. In the past month, 14 percent have done so—almost double the rate seen the year before. That’s a single-year increase almost unprecedented in the survey’s 40-year-history. Around 3.5 percent of 12th graders are vaping cannabis daily as well.

“The bottom line for us is that when you take any drug it affects your brain and of course, ultimately, your behavior. But our brains are developing well into our mid 20s,” Smith said. “And as a result, if you’re using substances connected with effects on brain functioning, there’s the possibility of longer-term consequences, so that’s why we’re always concerned about any exposure.”

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Long-term risks aside, the rise in vaping’s popularity comes amidst an ongoing outbreak of lung illness and deaths. Nearly 2,500 people have been hospitalized with the condition, called EVALI (e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury) and 52 people have died since it was first described by doctors this year. Most of these cases have been linked to the use of products containing THC, often purchased illegally, which can contain potentially toxic additives like vitamin E acetate.

The survey’s results can’t provide any insight as to how often teens are using these black market products, Smith said. But we do know that a slight majority (54 percent) of EVALI cases so far have involved people under the age of 24.

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The survey also can’t tell us how exactly to discourage teens from vaping so much. Smith does note that, aside from social factors, many teens say they vape simply because the products taste good, a testament to the popularity of sweet flavorings still available in many places. In recent months, a few states have enacted (or tried to enact) bans on flavored vaping products.

While some experts and advocates have argued that these bans are counterproductive and are only likely to drive more people to unregulated products—or back to smoking, in the case of adult vapers—that hasn’t stopped people from trying. Just this week, New York City passed a new law banning nearly all flavored vapes from being sold in stores.

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Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere

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