More US teens are vaping than smoking cigarettes, study finds

More US teenagers have tried vaping than smoking cigarettes, a new study shows, raising concerns among some researchers that vaping could become a new generation’s substance delivery system of choice.

The new nationally representative study showed that 35.8% of students in their final year of high school had tried vaping, versus 26.6% who had ever smoked a cigarette.


These findings emphasize that vaping has progressed well beyond a cigarette alternative

Richard Miech, principal investigator

Since vaping’s growth in popularity, debate has raged in public health circles about the role e-cigarettes should play. American researchers have largely taken a prohibitionist stance, arguing vaping does more harm than good, while British have researchers focused on the device’s potential benefits to current smokers.

“These findings emphasize that vaping has progressed well beyond a cigarette alternative,” said Richard Miech, the principal investigator on the annual Monitoring the Future survey, which involves tens of thousands of students. The government-funded research is now in its 43rd year, and considered the most authoritative national picture of teen drug use.

“Vaping has become a new delivery device for a number of substances, and this number will likely increase in the years to come,” said Miech.

Researchers only have three years of data on how many teens use the electronic devices, but the latest Monitoring the Future study found vaping is already widespread among high school students.

From its peak in the mid-1990s, the rate of all high school students who are smoking has dropped dramatically. For example in 1997, 65.4% of students in their final year of high school said they had ever smoked a cigarette. In 2017, 26.6% of the oldest high school students had smoked one.

However, in the last few years vaping has seen huge growth. Monitoring the Future did not measure teen vaping until 2015. By that time, 35.5% of 12th graders had used one before. That number rose slightly in 2017, to 38.8%.

E-cigarette smoking in California. The study also asked how often teens vaped marijuana.


E-cigarette smoking in California. The study also asked how often teens vaped marijuana. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For the first time this year, Monitoring the Future asked teens how often they vaped nicotine, marijuana or only flavoring, though researchers warned the numbers are likely to skew low since teens may not know what is in a vaping product. They found one in four 12th graders had vaped nicotine, and 11.9% had vaped marijuana.

Vaping devices turn liquid flavorings laced with nicotine or marijuana into a vapor. In the US, they are largely unregulated. Although Congress passed a law meant to regulate the devices in 2009, nearly a decade later the Food and Drug Administration failed to issue regulations to guide manufacturers. They don’t expect to do so before 2021.

Those delays have followed heavy lobbying by tobacco companies such as RJ Reynolds and Altria (formerly Philip Morris USA), who fought against the 2009 law.

Koval also said evidence of vaping marijuana was worrying. Emerging research shows marijuana can be detrimental to the development of teens’ brains.

“But as concerns this audience, which are young people, it’s not a good idea for them to be consuming nicotine in any way, shape or form,” Koval said. “It’s concerning to see that.”

Researchers have conducted Monitoring the Future surveys among US high school students in their final year since 1975, adding lower grades in the 1990s. In all, approximately 50,000 students in about 420 public and private secondary schools are surveyed annually.

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