Researchers are following the “vaping” trend very carefully, and they’ve stumbled upon some harrowing statistics: Vaping among high school seniors *doubled* in just one year, from 11 percent in 2017 to 21 percent in 2018. That jump is the largest one-year increase for any substance among teens—since experts began tracking 44 years ago.
The news comes from researchers from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Each year, this team surveys drug use in a study called Monitoring the Future.
Vaping refers to the use of e-cigarettes, which allows users to inhale heated aerosol. The e-cigs also contain nicotine, so they’re highly addictive. (In fact, some brands are so high in nicotine that they’re causing nicotine toxicity, and the FDA has warned that vaping is causing an uptick in seizures.)
While high school seniors present the largest jump in the study, vaping is increasing among all ages. In a study of nearly 14,000 teens, researchers found that vaping rates rose among tenth graders from 8.2 percent in 2017 to 16.1 percent in 2018, and among eighth graders from 3.5 percent in 2017 to 6.1 percent in 2018. While single digits might not sound impressive, that’s one in 20 eighth graders—nothing to scoff at.
In 2011, vaping rates were almost nonexistent in teens, according to this study. At the time, e-cigarettes were being presented as a “cleaner” and “safer” alternative to traditional cigarettes, and smokers were switching to e-cigs for what was called “harm reduction.”
Since then, newer brands of e-cigarettes have specifically targeted teens. For example, Juul uses young and attractive models, bold and bright colors, and flavors like mango and mint. The brand Mig Vapor comes in “Tommy’s Taffy” flavor, which is meant to emulate flavors of watermelon, cotton candy, and cream. White Cloud has flavors meant to taste like mint chocolate chip ice cream, creme brulee, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal.
The flavors tend to be a big draw for many teens. In fact, in one survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about two-thirds of teens thought their e-cig contained “just flavoring.” Furthermore, a measly 13 percent knew they were vaping nicotine. That’s a big deal, since studies have shown many “vapers” eventually switch to traditional cigarettes.
The rise in vaping comes as traditional cigarette smoking reached historic lows—particularly among teens, according to the U.S. Office of Population Affairs. In 1976, about 30 percent of high school seniors reported smoking cigarettes. By 2018, only 3.6 percent of seniors reported cigarette use. These numbers were something to celebrate, but unfortunately, the vaping trend is a step backwards.
Just like with cigarette use throughout history, vaping rates might be cut down with effective education about the dangers and health risks, such as harm to brain development and lung function. The need for action is urgent, and public health organizations are already beginning to roll out commercials, posters, and guides for parents and teachers to combat the rise in vaping.