Vaping gone viral: the astonishing surge in teens’ e-cigarette use
According to a new Vital Signs report, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2018, some 4.9 million high school and middle school students used tobacco in the last 30 days, an increase from 3.6 million in 2017. E-cigarettes were the most popular tobacco product among the children and adolescents.
The report follows a late 2018 National Institutes of Health survey, which tracked substance use among American adolescents. It found the number of high school seniors who say they vaped nicotine in the past 30 days doubled since 2017 — from 11 percent to nearly 21 percent. That was the largest increase ever recorded in any substance in the survey’s 43-year history. And it meant a quarter of 12th-grade students are now using, at least occasionally, a nicotine device that’s so new we have no idea what the long-term health impact of using it will be.
Young people’s extraordinarily rapid uptake of nicotine-delivery devices is one of the reasons Food and Drug Administration director Scott Gottlieb called for stronger regulations Monday. “Based on a growing body of evidence, I fear the youth trends will continue in 2019, forcing us to make some tough decisions about the regulatory status of e-cigarettes,” he said in a statement. “The signs that we’re seeing are not encouraging.”
The reason for the concern: Nicotine is a highly addictive substance and can cause immediate harmful side effects in young people’s developing brains and bodies. There’s some evidence that nicotine exposure may prime the developing brain to become more sensitive to substance use disorders later. Trying to quit nicotine can lead to serious withdrawal symptoms, including nervousness, restlessness, anxiety, sleepiness, and fatigue.
There’s also strong evidence of a potential long-term impact: that vaping may encourage kids to smoke. “After years of progress in reducing youth cigarette smoking, today’s report shows ... a stall in progress in reducing youth cigarette use and possibly even an uptick among high school students,” Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said in a statement. (That’s because the high school smoking rate went from 7.6 percent in 2017 to 8.1 percent in 2018.)
“The kids using e-cigarettes are children who rejected conventional cigarettes, but don’t see the same stigma associated with the use of e-cigarettes,” Gottlieb added. “But now, having become exposed to nicotine through e-cigs, they will be more likely to smoke.”
This may be only the beginning. Like the cigarette industry before it, vaping companies have found effective ways to market their wares to young people. The way they design and pitch their products packs a dual punch: They are both high-tech and highly addicting. That’s left regulators scrambling to keep up, and a big question mark about what vaping nicotine might mean for the health outcomes of this new generation.