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Vaping, Teens, and Delinquent Behavior

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
Meet The Team >

The media is filled with conflicting news about vaping.

On the one hand, research shows e-cigarettes and vaping are an effective component in smoking-cessation programs, i.e. helping people quit. On the other hand, the development of products like the Juul – a vape device that looks like a computer flash drive – and the marketing of flavored vape products has caused an uproar in our culture. Most people see the flash drive look and fruity flavors as thinly veiled marketing ploys by vape companies to target young people. They suspect companies want to get teens hooked on nicotine. That way, they create customers driven not by consumer choice, but by addiction.

No one likes that idea.

In fact, the City of San Francisco is on the verge of banning e-cigarette sales altogether, as part of an effort to control the startling rise in youth vaping over the past several years. Disclaimer: e-cigarettes are certainly not the root of all evil in the world. There are certainly worse things teenagers could be doing than vaping nicotine. But the fact remains that nicotine is a highly addictive drug, long-term nicotine use can cause severe health problems, and vaping itself damages the lungs. True, it’s not as toxic to our lungs as cigarette smoke, but it is toxic, and accepting the use of one thing simply because it’s less bad than another is faulty logic.

We’re not talking big picture good and evil here, of course, but the adage applies: the lesser of two evils is still evil.

Translation for this post: hot vapor is not as bad for human lungs as smoke, but it’s still bad for human lungs.

Big Picture Vaping Statistics

One reason vaping is in the news so much lately is because of data published in the 2018 Monitoring the Future Survey (MTF) conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan. Each year, over fifty-thousand students and young adults each year answer detailed questionnaires on the frequency of their nicotine, alcohol, and drug use. In the 2018 MTF, researchers found the most significant vaping increases in the adolescent population. In response to the survey question “Have you vaped nicotine in the last month?” middle and high school students provided answers that led to the following data.

MTF: Past 30-Day Nicotine Vaping

  • 21% of high school seniors said yes, they vaped nicotine in the last month.
    • That’s almost double, up from 11% in 2017.
    • It’s twice the largest year-to-year increase in the 43-year history of the MTF survey.
  • 16% of tenth graders said yes, they vaped nicotine in the last month.
    • That’s double, up from 8% in 2017.
    • It’s the largest increase recorded for any substance in this age group in the history of the survey.
  • 6.1% of eighth graders said yes, they vaped nicotine in the last month.
    • That’s also approaching double, up from 3.5% in 2017.
    • It’s the second largest increase recorded in this age group in the history of the survey.

In terms of numbers, not percentages, this means at least 1.3 million more adolescents vaped nicotine in 2018 than in 2017.

The number of adolescents who vape marijuana also increased from 2017 to 2018.

MTF: Past 30-Day Marijuana Vaping

  • 7.5% of high school seniors said yes, they vaped marijuana in the last month.
    • That’s up from 4.9% in 2017.
  • 7.0% of tenth graders said yes, they vaped in the last month.
    • That’s up from 4.3 % in 2017.
  • 2.6% of eighth graders said yes, they vaped in the last month.
    • That’s up from 1.6% in 2017.

The increases in marijuana vaping are not large, but they’re notable: 50% for seniors and close to 100% for both tenth and eighth graders. The developing trend to take away from the nicotine and marijuana data is that that vaping seems to be more acceptable to middle and high school age kids than smoking. Experts suggest teens believe it’s less harmful overall, which increases the chance they’ll try it instead of traditional smoking.

Vaping and Criminal Behavior

The dramatic increase in vaping among adolescents has led researchers to explore the relationship between vaping and a host of other behaviors. One scientist from the University of Texas at San Antonio used data from the 2018 MTF survey to perform and publish a retrospective analysis that attempts to answer the following question:

Is there a connection between vaping and criminal behavior?

Before we go any further, we should back up and say that since this study was a retrospective analysis and not a randomized controlled trial, the results can only speak to correlation, and not causation. Here’s a quick refresher on the difference between correlation and causation:


A statistical measure that describes the relationship between two or more variables. Correlation between variables does not mean a change in one variable is the cause of the change in the other variable.


Indicates that one variable or event is the result of the other variable or event. This is simple cause and effect.

For example, a cause and effect relationship is like this: cigarette smoking causes an increased risk of lung cancer. Whereas a correlative relationship goes something like this: people who smoke cigarettes are more likely to have an alcohol use disorder. In example one, smoking actually causes cancer. In example two, smoking cigarettes does not cause an increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder.

It’s an important distinction to understand.

Now that we have that out of the way, here’s what researchers found in their retrospective analysis.

Teens who vape have are at increased risk of:

  • Fighting at school
  • Engaging in a gang fight
  • Causing injury to another person
  • Carrying a weapon at school
  • Stealing
  • Vandalizing school property
  • Trespassing

In addition, they found something else interesting: teens who vape marijuana are at a higher risk of engaging in violent behavior or committing property offenses than teens who ingest marijuana through smoking or some other means.

What This Study Means

Let’s start with what this does not mean. It does not mean that if you catch your teenager vaping nicotine or marijuana, they’re one step away from getting in a fight, breaking windows at school, and joining a gang. It does mean, however, that if you catch your teen vaping nicotine or marijuana, they share that same habit with other teens who do, in fact, get in fights, damage school property, and participate in gang violence. For parents of teens, the new data on the correlation between vaping and criminal behavior means that if they see vaping as part of an overall pattern or behavior that could include criminality, then they should take heighten their vigilance, and double-down on their parenting involvement and open a dialogue with their teenager about what they see.

The conversation may be about nothing more than the dangers of vaping, but then again, it could also uncover issues that need to be addressed sooner rather than later.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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