The teen vaping epidemic is increasing while the use of alcohol, marijuana and other drugs among adolescents is declining or holding steady, according to new federal statistics published Monday.
In the past year, almost 38 percent of 12th-graders reported vaping — using electronic cigarette devices that vaporize a liquid typically mixed with flavored nicotine.
This represents an increase of more 10 percent since 2017, according to the Monitoring the Future Survey, an annual study that asks a representative sample of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders about their smoking, drinking and drug use over the past 12 months.
Researchers found that more than 20 percent of 12th-graders said they had vaped in the month before the survey, an increase from 11 percent just one year prior.
“Vaping is certainly the most startling information out of this survey, showing a surprising increase over a single year period,” said Dr. Wilson Compton, deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health.
Health officials are alarmed over the continued popularity of vaping, second only to alcohol for dangerous teen behavior, and its increasing use among students in middle school.
Almost 18 percent of eighth-graders and 32 percent of 10th-graders reported past-year vaping, increasing from 13 percent and 24 percent in 2017, respectively.
“These products didn’t exist until very recently, and the numbers of kids reporting vaping is exceptional and has certainly reached the highest levels, higher than even anticipated, that’s for sure,” Dr. Compton said.
This is compared to huge declines in traditional smoking, with between 1 and 3 percent of teenagers reporting any use of cigarettes, hookahs, smokeless tobacco or cigars.
Teen vaping exploded in 2015 and reached a peak of 16 percent with the first introduction of e-cigarette and vaping devices. Public service campaigns and stricter regulations helped decrease that level to 11.3 percent in 2016, according to data from the National Youth Tobacco Survey.
But those trends quickly reversed when Juul — a sleek, USB-size electronic cigarette — came on the market in 2017. It exploded in popularity, especially among teenagers, who used the devices while in class or school bathrooms, in cars and at parties — recording themselves and uploading the videos on social media.
Between 2017 and 2018, data from the National Youth Tobacco survey — a separate study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — saw a 78 percent increase in e-cigarette use among teenagers, with a 48 percent increase among middle school students.
This represents about 3.6 million teenagers in total.
“These data shock my conscience,” FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said in a statement in November with the release of the report.
Observing the rapid increase, federal health officials took Juul and similar vaping companies to task. They cited more than 1,300 brick-and-mortar stores for selling devices to underage kids, banned popular flavors that appeal to teens from being sold in stores and issued warnings over social media campaigns.
“These increases must stop,” Dr. Gottlieb said. “And the bottom line is this: I will not allow a generation of children to become addicted to nicotine through e-cigarettes.”
Other than that, today’s teenagers are trending in a remarkably responsible direction, with tobacco, illicit drug use and alcohol at some of their lowest levels.
“Indeed, there is very positive news when it comes to opioids for teens, when it comes to alcohol over the long term,” Dr. Compton said, adding that the number of kids continuing to smoke, drink and do drugs is still too high for his conscience.
“If [the numbers] hadn’t shown an improvement and they were just these rates, we’d be concerned,” he said. “But the fact that they’re trending in the right direction is really good news.”