Student Well-Being

High Schoolers Are Ditching Vapes. How Schools Can Encourage Students to Quit

By Arianna Prothero — May 17, 2023 3 min read
Image of E-cigarettes for vaping. Popular vape devices
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Vaping among high school students dropped during the pandemic, according to a recently released report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The percent of teens who said they had ever vaped, were currently vaping, or were vaping daily declined from 2019 to 2021—a finding that is consistent with other recent research.

In 2019, half of high school students said they had used an “electronic vapor product,” or EVP, at some point in their lives—a continuation of a troubling upward trend. But by 2021, that number had declined to 36 percent, well below even the 45 percent of teens who said in 2015 that they had vaped at some point in their lives.

“Certain factors might have contributed to this decline, including the implementation of policies restricting the sale of flavored tobacco products, and the COVID-19 pandemic, which provided youths fewer opportunities to purchase EVPs or interact with peers who use tobacco products and other substances,” the report said.

Schools have also taken a number of steps to try to combat the habit among teens in recent years, ranging from installing vapor-detecting devices in bathrooms to suing e-cigarette makers.

But while recent data may represent a promising downward trend, it also shows that plenty of 9th through 12th graders are still vaping. Nearly one in five said they had used an electronic vapor device in the past 30 days and 5 percent said they were using vaping devices daily—which has repercussions for student learning and schools. Nicotine use during adolescence can affect learning, memory, and attention, the report said.

The report, which was based on data collected in 2021 for the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, also highlights how vaping habits vary among students of different genders, races, and sexual orientations. Girls, for example, were more likely to say they had ever vaped or were currently vaping than boys, and the report points out that female high school students also reported high rates of eating disorders, anxiety, and depression related to the pandemic. Bisexual students were more likely to vape than their heterosexual, gay, lesbian, and questioning peers. And Asian students were less likely to vape than other racial and ethnic groups.

One caveat the report notes: The description the survey used to define “electronic vapor devices” was not limited to vaping devices that supply nicotine, so the results might overestimate nicotine use among high school students. Marijuana can also be used in vaping devices, for example.

Steps Schools Can Take to Help Curb the Habit

The findings from the report include:

  • 21 percent of female students are currently using a vaping device compared to 14 percent of male students.
  • 5 percent of Asian high school students said they were currently vaping, the group with the lowest prevalence.
  • Nearly a quarter of students who are Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, or American Indian or Alaska Native said they had used a vaping device in the past 30 days—the largest share of any racial or ethnic group.
  • 30 percent of students who identified as bisexual said they were currently vaping compared with 16 percent of their heterosexual peers and 15 percent of their peers who said they were either gay, lesbian, questioning, or other.

The survey also asked high school students where they get their vaping devices. The most common source was family, friends, and acquaintances, where half of teens said they acquired their vaping products.

While the pandemic may have helped drive down vaping use among high school students, there is still room for improvement. Schools can take steps to continue to battle the bad habit, according to advice that experts and school leaders shared with Education Week. Those recommendations include:

  • Have clear policies and plans. Schools should have clear and well-communicated policies about the consequences for vaping on campus. Schools should also have plans for screening students who are addicted to e-cigarettes and getting appropriate help for those students.
  • Try to avoid the use of scare tactics or discipline. These approaches won’t work without an education component. Students tune out when they hear them.
  • Design an educational approach. This should be broader than just educating students on the dangers of vaping (which surveys show many adolescents don’t know about). It should also employ elements of media literacy in which students are taught to see how advertising campaigns are used to manipulate them in unhealthy ways.
  • Include adults in anti-vaping efforts in meaningful ways. Focusing only on the kids and not involving parents, caregivers, teachers, principals, coaches, and even after-school providers will fail to have a meaningful impact on curbing vaping use among adolescents.
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