Although the use of e-cigarettes has skyrocketed in recent years, the good news is the number of teens who vape in the United States decreased in the first part of 2020, data shows.
In a survey conducted January–March 2020, 19.6% of high school students and 4.7% of middle school students were current users of e-cigarettes, down from 27.5% and 10.5%, respectively, in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Across these groups, the number of current users fell from 5.35 million to 3.57 million.
Unfortunately, a growing number of teens who vape said they vaped 20 days or more in the past 30 days of the survey. These heavy users now account for 39% of all high school users, up from 34% in 2019. So while overall numbers have gone down, a greater percentage of teens who vape appear to be addicted.
“I think there has been this countermovement even among kids themselves to make vaping less popular and to highlight that it’s not the cool, new, fun thing anymore,” says Dr. Jonathan Avery, director of addiction psychiatry at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “Its harms have been highlighted for both kids and parents who know about the catastrophic injuries connected to vaping,” he says, referring to vaping-related deaths and lung illnesses that occurred in 2019 and affected teens.
Despite the growing awareness, “once you’re addicted, regardless of the known risks, it’s hard to stop nicotine,” Dr. Avery says. “It’s a sneaky, difficult substance to quit.”
Dr. Avery notes that new federal restrictions on e-cigarettes took effect in early February, which may have contributed to the decline in overall teen usage. And in December 2019, the federal minimum age of purchasing tobacco, including e-cigarettes, was increased from 18 years old to 21. Dr. Avery continues to host, now virtually, public information sessions with advocacy groups like PAVE (Parents Against Vaping E-Cigarettes) to raise awareness about the harmful effects of vaping, and to reach out to pediatricians to help them learn how to screen for e-cigarette addiction.
Nicotine, especially in the developing brains of adolescents and young adults, is one of the hardest substances to quit over time, explains Dr. Avery. It activates the addiction pathways — certain circuits and centers of the brain that light up when people use substances and drive the brain to want to use more — making it very tough to stop. But these days, he says, unique social factors may also be at play, leading to an increase in addiction.