In 1975, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) funded the first large-scale, nationwide survey of nicotine, alcohol, and drug use among high school students, college students, and young adults in the U.S. Conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan, the Monitoring the Future Survey began with high school seniors and added eight and tenth graders in 1991. Over fifty-thousand students and young adults each year answer detailed questionnaires on the frequency of their nicotine, alcohol, and drug use. The survey also includes questions about their attitudes towards nicotine, alcohol, and drug use. The report for 2018 contains good news and not-so-good news: use of alcohol and drugs across all age groups and substances remained steady or declined from 2017-2018, while the use of nicotine showed its highest year-to-year increase in the history of the study.
Researchers identified a sole reason for the increase in nicotine use: vaping.
ICYMI: What is Vaping?
While most people know all about vaping, here’s a quick definition for those who don’t: vaping is the act of inhaling vapor released when liquids or the oils in a dry solid (typically a plant or herb) are heated past their boiling point. Common vaping liquids contain nicotine, fruity flavors, and/or any of a variety of cannabis oils that may or may not contain THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Common vaping solids include dry herbs such as tobacco, marijuana, and potpourri (people do not inhale potpourri). Vaping devices come in all shapes and sizes, from tabletop versions to miniature variations as small as a thumb-drive.
Vaping advocates claim it’s easier, cleaner, and less harmful than old-fashioned smoking. Since many of the toxins from cigarettes and marijuana appear in the smoke caused by combustion, these claims are not totally wrong. And to be fair, the easier and cleaner claims are entirely true.
The claims about vaping being less harmful are, however, misleading at best.
We won’t get sidetracked from the MTF report, but it’s important to understand at least three things about vaping.
Three Vaping Facts for Parents
- Vaping delivers higher concentrations of the vaped substance than traditional smoking, which can lead to unintended consequences such as increased rates of addiction and an increase in the intensity of the effect of those substances.
- Flavored vape liquids attract younger users who are sometimes unaware they’re ingesting addictive chemicals along with the flavors they enjoy.
- The absence of smoke, the small size of the newer devices, and the absence of a lingering odor – a few minutes as opposed to several hours – makes vaping easy to do quickly and without attracting attention.
We’d also be remiss if we didn’t mention something no one seems to point out: sure, not inhaling actual smoke is more healthy than inhaling smoke.
No one will ever convince us that intentionally inhaling hot vapor – typical vape temperatures register between 200- and 500-degrees Fahrenheit – is healthy for human lungs. Remember learning about the cilia in our lungs, where the crucial exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide takes place? They’re like tiny hairs. They don’t like hot. They evolved for one purpose, and we’re fairly certain that purpose was not to vape for fun.
And sure: hot vapor is less bad than hot smoke – but that’s a devil’s bargain, by definition.
With vaping, the user trades one unhealthy habit for another habit that’s slightly less unhealthy. Let’s be clear: not smoking is healthier than smoking. But let’s also be clear about vaping: not vaping is healthier than vaping. That may seem like a tidbit from the Department of the Totally Obvious, but we think it bears mention, because, well, no one ever mentions it.
Vaping Statistics for 2018
Researchers found the most significant increases in the adolescent population. In response to the survey question “Have you vaped nicotine in the last month?” middle and high school students offered some fairly shocking answers.
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. That’s not a trend to be happy about.
The numbers for marijuana vaping 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 marijuana statistics are not nearly as alarming as the nicotine statistics, but they should not be ignored. While the overall percentages are not large, the increases are not insignificant: almost 50% for seniors, and almost 100% for both tenth and eighth graders. The trend to note: vaping seems more acceptable to middle and high school age kids than smoking. They believe it’s less harmful overall, which therefore increases the chance they’ll try it instead of traditional smoking.
As we mentioned above, that point of view is a mix of truth and illusion. The truth is that vaping is less bad for you than smoking. Where we (and our teens) seem to be collectively missing the mark is in remembering this fact:
The healthier option of two unhealthy options is still an unhealthy option.
Silver Linings: The News is Not All Bad
The vaping numbers will likely stabilize over the next several years. Researchers attribute the rapid increase in adolescent vaping to several factors.
First, vaping is relatively new, and novelty is attractive, especially to teens. Second, rules and regulations governing the sale of vape devices are catching up to consumer demand. Rules and regulations for adolescents were virtually non-existent before the fall of 2018, when the first reports on teen vaping prevalence surfaced. The FDA is currently revamping guidelines for the sale of all vape products, with a special focus on the sale of e-cigarettes to minors in places like drug stores, convenience stores, and gas stations. Finally, aggressive policy and student education initiatives around vaping have yet to be implemented, because policy-makers and educators are only just now seeing the data.
Over the next several months, we can expect to see robust changes in the sale of both vape devices and vape substances.
So where is that silver lining?
The good news is that rates and frequency of use for almost all illicit drugs did not increase from 2017-2018. This includes common street drugs like heroin, hallucinogens, marijuana, and cocaine. Also, rates of prescription opioid (think Oxycontin) and tranquilizer (think Xanax) use decreased among all adolescent age groups, along with rates of binge drinking and overall alcohol use. The opioid data is one of the few positive developments we’ve seen in the ongoing battle against the opioid epidemic – any news that’s not about an increase in overdose deaths means we’re making progress, however slowly. The tranquilizer data is positive because an increasing number of pop music stars openly brag about tranquilizer use and misuse – the fact that many teens aren’t following their lead is also a step in the right direction.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.