The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Every January I turn to the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey results to see what the national trends were with adolescent substance use over the past year. Since 1975, the MTF study has been conducted annually by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

I’ve seen a lot of trends with different substances over the past 30+ years of reviewing MTF studies – trends that primarily showed a decrease in use while other trends raised some concerns.

This past January I read the summary of the 2019 MTF survey which involved about 42,500 students in 8th, 10th and 12th grades enrolled in 396 secondary schools nationwide. I was a bit more prepared for the 2019 results than when I read the 2018 report a year earlier. From 2017 to 2018, increases in adolescent vaping were the largest EVER recorded in the past 43 years for any adolescent substance use outcome in the United States! So, not surprisingly, from 2018 to 2019, the vaping continued its dramatic increase.

Vaping involves the inhalation of aerosols (sometimes including nicotine) using battery-powered devices such as e-cigarettes, “mods,” Juuls and e-pens. Starting in 2017, the MTF study asked about the vaping of three specific substances – nicotine, marijuana and just flavoring. Here’s a quick summary of the trends seen in vaping all three substances from 2017 to 2019:

  • Only vaping “just flavoring” showed significant decreases in 2019 in all three grades.
  • Over the two-year interval from 2017 to 2019, 30-day prevalence of vaping marijuana doubled or tripled in all three grades. For example, it rose from 4.9% in 2017 to 14.0% in 2019 among 12th graders.
  • Vaping nicotine also showed sharp increases over the same interval, with 30-day prevalence more than doubling in all three grades, rising from 11.9% in 2017 to 25.5% in 2019 among 12th graders. Given that nicotine is involved in most vaping this presents a serious threat to the hard-won progress we have tracked since the mid-1990s in reducing cigarette smoking among adolescents.

These survey results were concerning to me in January, but they became even more concerning when COVID-19 hit our country in March. In the beginning of the pandemic, it was believed young people were not at risk for the virus and if they did contract it, would likely experience few complications because of it. But, as time went on, an increasing number of serious coronavirus cases, involving young people, were being reported.

This is when it struck me that our adolescents ARE at serious risk for the coronavirus, especially those who vape or smoke. Numerous studies indicate that vaping, like smoking, inflames and damages the lungs. If teens have underlying lung damage from vaping, and get the coronavirus on top of that, the outcome is not going to be positive.

With the pandemic keeping many of us sheltering at home these past three months, it put teens who vape in a difficult predicament. How could they continue to secretly vape while at home 24/7? How could they access vaping products? Unfortunately, kids who were willing to work hard could still get vaping products, and for some, this meant leaving the house and potentially exposing themselves to COVID. Just being isolated during the past months has increased anxiety, stress and depression for many of us and for adolescents, its enough of a reason for some to start vaping or use more than they were before.

For other teens, COVID-19 has been the catalyst for them to quit vaping, whether they wanted to or not. However, the question remains to be answered, “Will they resume vaping when they leave their home and are among friends again who still vape?”

Even more concerning to me is whether parents know when their child is vaping. Parents and other adults kids are living with will continue to be on the front lines in the months to come and in the best position to recognize if their child is vaping. The question is, “Do they know how to identify vaping use?” Kids have become so savvy and secretive in their vaping practices that even I, a substance use prevention professional, might not even be able to identify when it’s happening.

As you prepare your response and readiness plan for the return of kids to your schools and programs, you need to address two things: 1) You and all your staff need to be prepared to recognize vaping among kids and 2) Help parents identify vaping use with their kids at home.

I feel so strongly about these two things that I want to be of help to you in addressing them. So, mark your calendar for a free webinar I am hosting next Thursday, June 18, from Noon-1:15 pm EST, called “Youth, Vaping and E-Cigarettes: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” I was an attendee of this webinar in January and I learned SO MUCH! I know you will, too. Registration for the webinar opens on Monday, June 15. If you would like to receive the registration email in your Inbox on Monday, please message me at Plan to register early as there is a cap on the number of participants for this webinar. And, be sure to share the invitation with your staff and the parents of your students!

COVID-19 isn’t going away anytime soon and vaping among adolescents isn’t likely going to decrease quickly either. So, if you want to reduce kids’ risk for the coronavirus one of the best things you can do is keep them from compromising their lungs by vaping. It starts by registering for next week’s webinar and learning the good, the bad and the ugly of vaping. I promise…it will pay off.

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