NEW YORK (AP) — Cigarette smoking rates have stopped falling among U.S. kids, and health officials believe youth vaping is responsible.
For decades, the percentage of high school and middle school students who smoked cigarettes had been declining fairly steadily. For the past three years, it has flattened, according to new numbers released Monday.
There may be several reasons, but a recent boom in vaping is the most likely explanation, said Brian King of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We were making progress, and now you have the introduction of a product that is heavily popular among youth that has completely erased that progress,” King said.
Use of e-cigarettes among New York state high school-age residents rose 160 percent in four years, from 10.5 percent of the cohort in 2014 to 27.4 percent in 2018, according to the state Youth Tobacco Survey. E-cigarettes remained the most commonly used tobacco-related products among youth, according to the state Health Department.
More local surveys haven’t been updated. Oneida County surveys teen behaviors every four years, most recently in 2015, with one scheduled this year.
“Parents, teens and young adults must not be fooled into believing electronic cigarettes and similar products are a safe alternative to smoking. Most contain highly addictive nicotine and other unsafe chemicals which can affect adolescent and young adult brain development,” said Oneida County Director of Health Phyllis D. Ellis. “Bottom line: the use of any tobacco product is unsafe, but use of e-cigarettes by young people is extremely dangerous and growing.”
Youth use of e-cigarettes was identified as a priority in the 2016-18 update of the Oneida County Community Health Assessment published in December 2017 by the Oneida County Health Department, Rome Memorial Hospital and the Mohawk Valley Health System of Faxton-St. Luke’s and St. Elizabeth hospitals in Utica. Youth starting tobacco use with e-cigarettes was labeled an emerging issue, which led to plans to fight teen use of e-cigarettes.
The plan update set as a goal prevention of tobacco use by youth and young adults, especially among those of low socioeconomic status. Tactics included getting municipalities to adopt policies protecting youth from retail tobacco marketing and getting youth to talk with key leaders about tobacco marketing in stores. The BRiDGES program, once focused on reducing alcohol and drug abuse among youth in Madison County, was expended to also serve Oneida and Herkimer Counties with a focus on educating young people about the tobacco industry’s manipulation of consumers.
The update noted that although the percentage of adults smoking cigarettes decreased from 24 percent to 22 percent from the 2013 health assessment, the percentage remained high in comparison to New York state, at 17.3 percent, and the state objective of 12.3 percent.
The CDC findings come from a national survey conducted last spring of more than 20,000 middle and high school students. It asked if they had used any tobacco products in the previous month. Some of the findings had been released before, including the boom in vaping.
Experts attribute the vaping increase to the exploding popularity of newer versions of e-cigarettes, like those by Juul Labs Inc. of San Francisco. The products resemble computer flash drives, can be recharged in USB ports and can be used discreetly — including in school bathrooms and even in classrooms.
According to the new CDC data, about 8 percent of high schoolers said they had recently smoked cigarettes in 2018, and about 2 percent of middle schoolers did. Those findings were about the same seen in similar surveys in 2016 and 2017.
It also found that about 2 in 5 high school students who used a vaping or tobacco product used more than one kind, and that the most common combination was e-cigarettes and cigarettes. Also, about 28 percent of high school e-cigarette users said they vaped 20 or more days in the previous month — nearly a 40 percent jump from the previous year.
Smoking, the nation’s leading cause of preventable illness, is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths each year. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration bans the sale of e-cigarettes and tobacco products to those under 18.
E-cigarettes are generally considered better than cigarettes for adults who are already addicted to nicotine. But health officials have worried for years that electronic cigarettes could lead kids to switch to smoking traditional cigarettes.
“I think the writing is on the wall,” with research increasingly suggesting e-cigarettes are becoming a gateway to regular cigarettes, said Megan Roberts, an Ohio State University researcher.
There is, however, some split of opinion among health researchers. Some had linked e-cigarettes to an unusually large drop in teen smoking a few years ago, and they say it’s not clear to what extent the decline in smoking has stalled or to what degree vaping is to blame.
Cigarette smoking is still declining in some states. And another large survey found that smoking has continued to drop among 12th graders, though not in younger school kids.
“It’s not clear yet what’s going on and it’s best to not jump to any conclusions,” said David Levy, a Georgetown University researcher.