The number of teen smokers has fallen to almost negligible levels, according to the latest survey data.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health for 2018 shows just 2.7% of youth aged 12-17 smoked a cigarette in the past month, down from 3.2% in 2017. Marijuana use was flat at 12.5%, despite years of legalization in several states. Binge drinking was also down to 4.7%, from 5.3% the year before.
In years past, such results would’ve garnered a slew of headlines celebrating yet another great advance for public health. But even health reporters now ignore the latest batches of good news on teen smoking.
There are a few obvious reasons for this lack of coverage. The first and most obvious is that nobody cares. Youth smoking has fallen so dramatically in the past decade few consider the issue worth talking about. As the data show, more youth are using weed or drinking dangerous amounts of alcohol than lighting up.
Smoking is also heavily concentrated among poorer and less educated Americans. Cigarettes just aren’t a feature of life for most middle and upper-middle-class parents whose children have close to zero chance of picking up smoking.
The survey data also gets a pass because it has nothing to do with vaping, the alleged scourge of 21st-century youth. Vaping, and in particular the largest e-cigarette company Juul, is public enemy number one.
In the year 2017-18, teen vaping rose substantially. This troubling development is considered so bad that public health officials have gone so far to call it an “epidemic.” There was a time when e-cigarettes were accused of being a “gateway” to smoking. But after years of decline in teen smoking as vaping has increased, this theory now looks as credible as the claim that marijuana is a gateway to heroin.
Nevertheless, any negative story on e-cigarettes, no matter how baseless or thinly sourced, is guaranteed copy.
While the National Survey on Drug Use and Health data was being ignored, dozens of media outlets jumped on an announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that 153 possible cases of severe lung illness related to vaping have been reported across 16 states in the past two months.
These stories all have one thing in common, and it’s not Juul. The common denominator is that the people suffering from these illnesses were using illegal and unregulated products, most containing cannabis oil and other unknown ingredients. Not a single one of these cases has been attributed to the use of a legal nicotine product.
This is not a new problem. As the Heartland Institute’s Lindsey Stroud points out: “In January, three teens in Indiana were hospitalized after smoking ‘THC vape pens that were laced with an unknown substance.’ In the same month, six high school students in New Mexico were hospitalized ‘after vaping marijuana wax.'”
Michelle Minton of the Competitive Enterprise Institute highlights similar cases in the U.K. where officials warn against using illicit vaping products.
But instead of scaremongering about vapor products, which have been conclusively proven to be safer than cigarettes, the U.K. actively encourages smokers to switch to vaping. The latest figures also show British teens hardly vape at all, e-cigarettes being relegated to older smokers trying to quit and the occasional hipster.
Around 12 million American adults use e-cigarettes, and they’ve been available for more than a decade. In that time, there’s not been a single confirmed case of a legal e-cigarette product causing a teen to be hospitalized with severe lung problems.
E-cigarettes aren’t just popular with smokers trying to quit; they’re more effective than traditional nicotine replacement therapies like the patch or gum. But U.S. public health bodies are loath to admit any benefits of vaping. Under duress from the weight of evidence in its favor, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health report concedes that some of the dramatic decline in smoking among all age groups over the past few years “may reflect the use of electronic vaporizing devices (‘vaping’), such as e-cigarettes, as a substitute for delivering nicotine.”
In the next few weeks, we’ll get new figures on teen vaping from the National Youth Tobacco Survey. It’s highly likely they’ll show yet another increase. These numbers will spark countless headlines and demands to either ban e-cigarettes outright or tax and regulate them into oblivion. In the time it took to collect those numbers, 480,000 Americans will have died from smoking.
Teen vaping can and should be reduced, just like underage drinking and drug use has been reduced. But this shouldn’t come at the expense of denying 34 million smokers access to products that could save their lives. Whatever problems arise from teen vaping, no one should be under any illusion that these are in the same league as smoking.