public health

Teens Are Way More Into Vaping Than Smoking Regular Cigarettes

Teenager smoking electronic cigarette.
Teenager Photo: VOISIN/PHANIE/Corbis

Smoking tobacco cigarettes is so not cool these days, and anyone who’s anyone is apparently vaping. The 2014 edition of the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s annual survey on adolescent students’ drug use says e-cigarettes are more popular among teens than tobacco cigarettes, with regular smoking among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders falling to the lowest levels in the history of the survey.

Almost 9 percent of 8th graders had vaped in the past 30 days versus 4 percent using a tobacco cigarette. E-cig use was higher among older teens, with 16 percent of high school sophomores and 17 percent of seniors having vaped, while only 7 and 14 percent, respectively, were regular smokers. Between 4 and 7 percent of teens who’d tried e-cigarettes had never experimented with tobacco.

Should we be concerned that almost one-in-five high school seniors has vaped? Interpreting these numbers is complicated, and it depends mostly on whether or not the kids who are vaping would otherwise be smoking cigarettes. At one end of the (hypothetical) spectrum, if 100 percent of the kids who are vaping would instead be smoking regular cigarettes — or used to smoke but switched to vaping — then a case could be made that e-cigs are good from a public-health perspective, since they don’t contain tar and the many other carcinogens found in cigarettes. If, on the other hand, the vapers would never have touched a tobacco cigarette anyway, then it’s a different story — the devices are creating a new batch of nicotine addicts who might take up more dangerous habits down the road. The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle — we just don’t know where.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Lloyd Johnston of the University of Michigan, said he’s generally skeptical of the optimistic “replacement” hypothesis, and that researchers are concerned e-cigs could reverse some of those “hard-won” gains in reducing cigarette use. “There’s a major public health concern there will be a move across to [tobacco] cigarette smoking,” he said, since e-cig users are “exposing themselves to an addiction to nicotine.” Rather than e-cigs becoming a slightly better alternative to tobacco smoking, or a tool to help people quit (there’s evidence they are a useful option for smokers trying to lose the habit), Johnston thinks they are more likely to serve as a gateway to tobacco cigarettes. 

Though more research still needs to be done, Johnston says the current coolness of vaping may play a role. Bubblegum or chocolate flavor probably tastes better than a Marlboro, after all. Plus, “blowing off the vapor,” Johnston said, “is a big statement.”

Study: Teens More Into E-Cigs Than Smoking