More than one of every 10 high school students is vaping, according to newly released federal data.
While e-cigarette usage appears to be down from its pre-pandemic peak—when about 6 million middle and high school students reported vaping, compared with 2.6 million now—it’s impossible to say for certain if that is the case. The National Youth Tobacco Survey has changed how it collects data in recent years, so the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which helps analyze and publish the data, cautions against making comparisons with previous years.
Educators, however, may draw some comfort from the apparent slowdown in vaping, which was driving schools to become increasingly creative and desperate in combating the habit, from installing vapor-detecting devices in bathrooms to creating e-cigarette buy-back programs to suing e-cigarette makers. In addition to coming in tasty flavors and being easy to hide from adults, many adolescents may not know that e-cigarettes are bad for their health or even that they contain nicotine—although awareness is on the rise.
Prior to the pandemic, vaping among adolescents had been accelerating, with about 20 percent of high schoolers and 5 percent of middle schoolers reporting e-cigarette use in 2019 and 2020.
Those numbers dropped to 11 percent and 2.8 percent respectively in 2021, when the survey was conducted fully online for the first time to include students learning from home. Up until 2018, students took the survey using pencil and paper in school. In 2019 and 2020 they used tablets. The National Youth Tobacco Survey used a web-based survey in 2021 and 2022, with half of students taking it in school in 2021 and nearly all taking it from school in spring 2022.
This year, 14 percent of high school students and 3 percent of middle school students report that they had vaped in the past 30 days. Among those students, 42 percent said they were vaping frequently (meaning 20 of the last 30 days) and nearly 28 percent saying they were using e-cigarettes daily.
Flavored e-cigarettes are very popular with adolescents who vape—85 percent use flavored e-cigarettes. The most popular flavors are fruit; candy, desserts or other sweets; mint; and menthol.
What can schools do to stop kids from vaping?
Vaping has proven to be especially difficult for educators to police as it’s relatively easy for students to hide.
Other than suing e-cigarette makers (which several districts have done), schools can take several steps to curb vaping among their students, according to advice that experts and school leaders have 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 campuses. Schools should also have plans for screening students who are addicted to e-cigarettes and getting appropriate help for those students who are.
- 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 trying 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.
While e-cigarettes may not be as unhealthy as traditional, “combustible” cigarettes, they still have many toxic chemicals and metals in them. They also often have higher concentrations of nicotine than traditional cigarettes and present a hazard to young, developing brains.
Experts don’t know what the long-term effects of e-cigarette use is because the devices haven’t been around long enough, unlike the vast amount of evidence showing that traditional tobacco products have serious, long-term consequences on people’s health. And many teens who start vaping soon progress to traditional cigarettes.