American teenagers are smoking far fewer tobacco cigarettes than ever before, which is good news for public health. But they’re making up for it to some extent with heightened use of marijuana and electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, according to an NIH report released in late 2017.
The agency’s “Monitoring the Future Survey” included nearly50,000 eighth, tenth, and twelfth grade students. It found that during 2017, use of traditional tobacco cigarettes by teens has declined to the lowest level since the survey was first started in 1975. That’s a positive development, since smoking is a leading cause of numerous diseases and disabilities, including heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, lung disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). What’s more, CDC research shows that adult tobacco use is established primarily in adolescence.So less teen smoking means fewer future adult smokers.
On the other hand, the survey also revealed a significant increase in 2017 in teen use of e-cigarettes as well as of marijuana. E-cigarettes (also called “e-cigs,” “vapes,” “vape pens” and “hookahs”) are battery-operated devices that deliver nicotine, flavorings, or other additives to users through an inhaled vapor. E-cigarettes have become popular among many people because of the ability to add flavors such as mint, fruit, or chocolate to the inhalant.
According to the study, more than one quarter (28 percent) of twelfth graders reported “vaping” in the year preceding the survey, with approximately 19 percent vaping nicotine. Another 10 percent reported vaping marijuana. The use of e-cigarettes among teenagers is concerning to researchers because it appears to be “re-normalizing” smoking behavior among young people and introducing many teens to nicotine, which is highly addictive. Additionally, a study published in January 2018 in Pediatrics found that high school students who used e-cigarettes were much more likely to subsequently use conventional cigarettes.
As for marijuana use, the NIH survey found it had significantly increased among teens for the first time in seven years between 2016 and 2017, but only by about 1 percent (from 23 percent to 24 percent for 8th, 10th, and 12th graders combined). Researchers attribute the minor increase to changing attitudes toward marijuana among teens, who view the drug—which is now legal for medical use in more than half of states and for recreational use in eight states and the District of Columbia—as less risky to their health, and more socially acceptable, than ever before. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), adolescent use of marijuana can lead to impaired memory and concentration and interfere with learning, and it is linked to lower odds of finishing high school and college. In addition, because marijuana can alter motor control, coordination, and judgment, its use can lead to unintentional injury and death. It can also set the stage for adult drug addiction. The potential for increased teen access to marijuana is one reason the AAP has opposed the legalization of marijuana.
Also see Marijuana: Hazy Health Risks.