Since Adolescent Drug Use Trends Are Otherwise Unalarming, Let's Freak Out About Vaping

The government and the press focus on newfangled contraptions instead of drug-related harm.


Between 2018 and 2019, according to the latest results from a government-sponsored survey, illegal drug use rose slightly among eighth-graders and 10th-graders while falling slightly among 12th-graders. None of the changes was statistically significant, and the story for marijuana is similar. Meanwhile, drinking and smoking continued to fall in all three grades, and there were statistically significant drops in heroin use by 10th-graders and prescription opioid use by 12th-graders.

If you are thinking there is not much cause for panic in those findings, you are of course wrong. The press release about the Monitoring the Future Study, which is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), highlighted increases in vaping, and so did the New York Times story,  because that is what public health officials, politicians, and journalists are freaking out about lately.

"Increases in adolescent marijuana vaping from 2018 to 2019 ranked among the largest single-year increases ever observed by Monitoring the Future in the past 45 years among all outcomes ever measured," the University of Michigan researchers who conduct the survey breathlessly report. "Nicotine vaping in the last 12 months also significantly increased in 2019."

Those results, according to lead investigator Richard Miech, show that "current policies and procedures to prevent youth vaping clearly aren't enough." Hence "we need new policies and strategies to prevent unscrupulous businesses from making billions of dollars by addicting children to nicotine." You can be pretty sure those "new policies and strategies" will not be good for the millions of Americans who have switched from smoking to vaping, or the millions of others who might be interested in following suit. The leading proposals include bans on e-liquid flavors, which eliminate the options that former smokers overwhelmingly prefer, and an outright ban on e-cigarettes, which the American Medical Association has endorsed.

Times reporter Matt Richtel's take on the survey results is similar to Miech's. "Teenagers are drinking less alcohol, smoking fewer cigarettes and trying fewer hard drugs," he writes. "But these public health gains have been offset by a sharp increase in vaping of marijuana and nicotine" (emphasis added).

That is an odd way of framing the data. This year the prevalence of past-month marijuana vaping, which the survey first asked about in 2017, rose from 7.5 percent to 14 percent among 12th-graders, from 7 percent to 12.6 percent among 10th-graders, and from 2.6 percent to 3.9 percent among eighth-graders. Those are all substantial and statistically significant increases. But overall marijuana use stayed pretty much the same, so we are mainly talking about a shift in modes of consumption.

Should we be alarmed by that shift? There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about the potential hazards of black-market cannabis extracts, especially if they contain vitamin E acetate, a cutting and thickening agent that has been implicated in the recent outbreak of vaping-related lung injuries. But leaving aside that government-engineered danger, vaping is a less risky route of administration than smoking, because it does not involve sucking combustion products into your lungs.

That is especially true if you are comparing nicotine vaping products to conventional cigarettes, which are indisputably much more hazardous. This year the prevalence of past-month cigarette smoking reached record lows among high school sophomores and seniors. Since 1997, that rate has fallen from 36.5 percent to 5.7 percent among 12th-graders—an 84 percent drop. Furthermore, the downward trend accelerated as the popularity of e-cigarettes rose.

To the extent that we are witnessing a shift from smoking to vaping among teenagers, that is manifestly a positive development in terms of health risks. It therefore makes little sense when The New York Times says the increase in vaping "offset[s]" the decrease in smoking, just as it makes little sense when public health officials say "past progress in reducing youth use of [tobacco] products has been erased" by the recent surge in e-cigarette use.

"One of the reasons they are embracing these devices is because they are new technology," NIDA Director Nora Volkow worriedly tells the Times. "It resonates." But if the welfare of teenagers is the main concern, the government and the press should be focusing on drug-related harm rather than newfangled consumption methods. A different calculus applies, of course, if the main concern is justifying budgets and grabbing readers' eyeballs.

NEXT: Don't Trade Stock Tips or Obsess About the Fed, Read Moby Dick Instead

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. This is actually an excellent case study in how humans in large groups think.

    Anti-vaping can trace its origins to anti-smoking groups funded by the big tobacco settlements. They are funded by cigarette profits, specifically to undertake anti-smoking campaigns.

    With smoking on the way out due in no small part to vaping, they had to find a new reason to exist. So they started targeting vaping.

    Now, one wonders how they are able to fund their anti-vaping activities given their mandate and funding source, but let’s pretend that this is all kosher. Still, they started talking about vaping out in California years ago. And then they began running ads about vaping. And sponsoring legislation about vaping.

    Their early focus was typical progressive activist focus – Big Tobacco is finding a way to continue making money! We must stop this!

    This didn’t gain much traction beyond the far left though. So they changed tactics and made it about the children. Just like they did in the tobacco fights…. remember all the stuff about Joe Camel and advertising to kids? Same playbook.

    And look at how the idea took hold. With a concerted effort and a scare hook, they slowly introduced a meme into society that has people thinking this is an urgent problem. Having a couple of hundred people get injured by black market products was the final push they needed. Never mind that there are millions of users and hundreds of injuries over many years. They got the hook and people who are casually listening are now convinced that something must be done.

    1. “This is actually an excellent case study in how humans in large groups think.”

      You’re right about that, but it goes back even further than the tobacco settlement under Clinton administration. The excellent case study is how people use corruption of the youth as a rallying cry to persuade people to do stupid things–and it goes back to the ancient Athenians going after Socrates for supposedly corrupting the youth, at least. Oh, we got trouble, right here in River City, with a capital “T” and that rhymes with “V” and that stands for vaping!

      1. I wouldn’t doubt if the serpent used the “For the children” argument to get Eve to bite into the apple.

    2. Spot on. +1,000,000.

  2. I prefer to stay ahead of the curve and the vaping panic is already passe, those of us in the know have already moved on to panicking over the epidemic of people posting nude videos of under-age cats on the internet.

    Look, people, you may think it’s “cute” what your pet is doing, but it’s nothing less than kitty porn and without written consent it’s rape. I’ve actually heard of people drugging their animal-child with catnip in order to get them to “perform” and if you’ve ever watched such sick, perverted, horrifyingly obscene videos, I hope they lock you up for a long, long time.

  3. What if teenagers were inhaling nicotine instead of drinking caffeinated beverages?

    1. Every day I hear commercials for vaping products on the radio, which always include the preamble, “This product contains nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive chemical”. I always wonder where this warning is for products such as soda and coffee. More people die each year from obesity related health issues, which in some small amount can be attributed soda (hence cities like Philly cracking down), than they do from tobacco. Where is that preamble for Coke commercials and caffeine. Caffeine and nicotine are almost identical in addiction and effect on body.

      1. Get with the times, man!

        For the childrenz!!!

  4. Tobacco control is a boomer enterprise, when they were kids, they felt righteous giving mom and dad crap about their cigarette smoking because it was the anti-establishment thing to do. Some like Stan Glantz at UCSF then made very lucrative careers of it Now, as with so many other things, they are becoming irrelevant, but still hold the reins of power, so we have this freak out about a problem that they largely are responsible for (vaping never would have taken off if they hadn’t so demonized and banned smoking everywhere).

  5. Always have to have a boogie man to fight.

  6. This is foolishness, but the Republicans are jumping on the bandwagon too. I don’t get why there is bipartisan support for this crap. Of course, The mainstream media right or left (but especially left) would revile me for saying it is unnecessary to regulate vaping and that putting the age to 21 is unwarranted, because…
    Think of the Children! We need to Save Them!!
    When did 18-20 suddenly become childhood? If they can vote, and join the military, I say they can vape or drink a beer. Oh, and banning bubblegum flavors and other stuff like that is also stupid. Let the market decide.

    1. 100%…. if you are going to ask someone to kill and/or die for the country, you had better not dare infantilize them. Don’t want 19 year olds drinking whiskey? Then you’d better move the age for military service up…. especially since we still register for the draft.

      Why anyone tolerates this is beyond me. The ACLU is all over the injustice of not having tampon dispensers in the men’s room, but they are silent on this stuff.

      1. As a person with a penis, I feel it’s only fair and just I have access to tampons. And they should be free.

  7. “If teenagers are vaping marijuana instead of sucking on lollipops, that is one thing.”

    You know that marijuana lollipops are a thing too, right?

  8. Anyone else seen those ‘tRuth Campaign’ (Orwellian Bolshevik translation: ‘lying propaganda, but the ends justify the means’) ads targeting Juul? They spew lies and literally slander a private company, by name! How is this legal?

    The commercial I’m referring to isn’t on YT yet, but it’s similar to this one:

    They’re funded by the proceeds of the 1990s Anti-Tobacco Shakedown and they get ‘free’ airtime from the Ad Council. Most of these folks’ intentions rise to little more than using the government to run interference for their various shakedowns…but there are always ‘true believers.’ These people and their anti-freedom mentality make me nervous. They’re nothing new, of course, as C.S. Lewis pointed out –

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”

    1. Yes! I have commented on that before, and that is actually the genesis of my comment above. That thing is an abomination, and it is funded by tobacco settlement dollars.

      1. For those who haven’t seen it, one of their main points is that Juul makes a lot of money. It is, as I said, an abomination.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.