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Do we really need to panic about a ‘teen vaping epidemic’?

Do we really need to panic about a ‘teen vaping epidemic’?

Posted by Sabina King on Feb 26th 2020

If you’ve followed the news recently, you’d find that the discourse around vaping in the US has taken a particularly extremist turn. A lot of this can be attributed to concerns about the mysterious ‘vaping illness’ that was said to be sweeping the nation last year.

Like with most outbreaks of this kind, reporting was accompanied by alarmist headlines about youth vaping. Even with evidence that the illness was most likely caused by unregulated substances in black market THC vapes, the panic had already gained momentum.

No one wants teens to be vaping or smoking, and rightly so. Studies and reports were quickly followed by talks of a blanket ban on all flavored vape products, since these were deemed to be more attractive to a younger crowd. President Trump finally signed off on a slightly watered-down version of what was initially proposed, but it hasn’t done enough to quell anxieties about teen vaping.

However, a new study published by researchers at the NYU School of Global Public Health suggests we take a closer look at the statistics to see if rates of teenage vaping really do warrant the label of an epidemic.

Different voices on vaping.

Amidst panicky headlines and legislation in the US, several organizations abroad have appealed for calm. Public Health England (like a UK equivalent of the CDC), for instance, stated that e-cigarettes are at least 95% less hazardous than cigarettes.

Public health bodies recognize the immense potential of vaping in reducing smoking rates. To that end, one could find vape shops in some British hospitals too. Stoptober, which is the UK’s anti-smoking campaign, also encourages people to switch to vaping.

More recently, The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners – one of the peak GP bodies in Australia – backed vaping nicotine as a way to quit smoking in their latest guidelines. This policy shift brings the RACGP in line with several other public health bodies in Australia and New Zealand.

What are the statistics on adult vaping in the US?

Reports from medical bodies suggest the following:

statistics on adult vaping in the usa

The US adult smoking rate is at an all-time low.

A report from the CDC states that the US adult smoking rate is now the lowest ever recorded, a mere 14%.[1]

Vaping helps people quit smoking.

In a randomized clinical trial, vaping managed to accomplish an 18% quit rate, as opposed to 9.9% with nicotine replacement therapies like patches or gum. [2]

Quitters prefer vaping.

Another study by the CDC suggested that of smokers that attempt to quit, more use vaping than nicotine replacement therapies.[3]

Adult vapers enjoy flavouring.

For millions of adult vapers across the US, flavors lend an added appeal to vaping. A study published in Harm Reduction Journal found that adults that quit cigarettes and switched to vaping generally prefer non-tobacco flavors like fruit and dessert ones.[4] The study concluded that “Restricting access to non-tobacco e-cigarette flavors may discourage smokers from attempting to switch to e-cigarettes.”

What are the statistics on teen vaping in the US?

In light of the vaping illness, several benefits of vaping were swept under the rug, and warning bells proclaiming harm to teens were amplified. But does the data back it up?

statistics on teen vaping in the usa

Smoking among high-school students has dropped.

In 2019, only 5.8% of students reported that they had smoked at least once in the last 30 days.[5] In an analysis of surveys from 2013-2019 by the NYU School of Global Public Health, numbers highlighted the rapid drop in smoking rates (to a record low) in the same years that vaping increased.

From 2015-2019, daily cigarette use among youth went from 1.2% to 0.9%, while regular vaping (which would be 20+ times in the preceding month) increased from 1.7% to 3.6%.

David Abrams, a co-author of the study said, “The faster drop in smoking suggests vaping is helping displace youth use of much more deadly smoking—a net harm reduction benefit to the population as a whole. ”

Nevertheless, the FDA still warned that vaping could lead to teen smoking (a statement that has no research backing, and indeed has research to the contrary).

Most teens don’t smoke or vape.

The study conducted by the NYU School of Global Public Health, published in Nicotine & Tobacco Research found that 80% of youth do not use any tobacco. Additionally, over 86% don’t vape.

Most teen vapers aren’t frequent users.

Among the minority of teens that do vape, most do so infrequently. This is a key factor that was not given enough weightage in the FDA and CDC’s National Youth Tobacco Survey.

The authors of the NYU study analysed data from the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey wherein 20,000 middle and high school students were asked about their use of tobacco and vape products.

While youth vaping did increase from 2017 to 2018, this was attributable to infrequent e-cigarette use rather than regular use. In 2018, for instance, 13.8% of students had vaped in the last 30 days. More than half of these vaped just 5 days or less.

Most teen vapers are current or former smokers.

This was yet another metric that was not evaluated by previous surveys, but is undeniably important. The majority of youth vapers have either used or are using more deadly tobacco products (60% – 88.9%, depending on the frequency of vaping). This suggests it is unlikely that e-cigarettes are a gateway to smoking.

So, is there really a teen vaping epidemic?

The data suggests otherwise. Previous studies about the rise in teen vaping aren’t miscalculated, just misleading.

“Our findings underscore the importance of examining the full context of how youth are using vaping and tobacco products,” said Allison Glasser, the study’s lead author. “The key to protecting youth in the United States is determining the patterns of frequency of use and co-use of vaping and tobacco products, which will give public health decision makers the best possible information to protect the public’s health.”

“Examining tobacco and e-cigarette use patterns in youth is informative about the risk of continued use in adulthood. While in a perfect world young people would not be smoking or vaping, if the vast majority of youth who vape are already current or former smokers, vaping could offer them a safer alternative than cancer-causing cigarettes,” said Ray Niaura, a study co-author.

However, misinformation and half-truths, especially when they involve the health and safety of youth, are hard to shake off. Polls suggest that a significant portion of Americans support banning all e-cigarettes. This could be an error of mammoth proportions. “We need to avoid prohibitionist regulations like banning e-cigarettes—while leaving much more deadly cigarettes and cigars in corner stores—and instead should consider strong enforcement of age 21 sales restrictions. Prohibition creates a black market for vaping products or inadvertently pushes individuals back to smoking tobacco,” said David Abrams. “If we lose this, we will have blown the single biggest public-health opportunity ever to get rid of cigarettes and replace them with a much safer form of nicotine for everybody.”


[1]https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2018/p1108-cigarette-smoking-adults.html

[2]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30699054

[3]https://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2017/16_0600.htm

[4]https://harmreductionjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12954-018-0238-6

[5]https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/youth_data/tobacco_use/index.htm

Veppo Vape Team

Gina King is the brand manager for Veppo, a family run brand offering select, tested, high quality vape pen vaporizers, e-liquid and e-cigars. Over the past 12 years, Veppo has provided more than 250,000 customers a friendly alternative to cigarettes.

Gina is a mother, writer, traveler and speaker and has been featured on HuffPost, Forbes, Elite Daily and more.

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