Teen smoking survey: how can we make this sound bad?

Fewer kids are smoking and vaping, despite the Surgeon General's alarmist report.

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Hot on the heels of last week’s report on youth vaping from the Surgeon General comes news that teen vaping and smoking are both declining. In fact, according to the latest Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, teen smoking is at its lowest level ever.

The survey is conducted annually by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. Each year, a large representative sample of 8th-, 10th- and 12th-grade students are surveyed, and follow-up questionnaires are also sent to a sample group of graduates for several years after they leave school. About 50,000 students are surveyed.

This gateway isn't working right

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Teen smoking has declined more rapidly during the years of the “teen vaping epidemic” than ever before. Since 2013, current use of cigarettes by 12th-graders declined from 16.3 to just 10.5 percent. Current smoking by 10th-graders declined from 9.1 to a miniscule 4.9 percent.

And teen vaping is declining too. Previous 30-day use dropped by more than 22 percent in all three age groups. Unfortunately, previous 30-day use is the only measure of vaping frequency the survey uses. It would be much more valuable if we knew the number of regular vapers.

Fewer than 25 percent of 12th grade survey participants reported vaping nicotine.

The survey also shows that teenagers have a much better understanding of the risks of vaping than the adult public does. Among 8th graders, just 21 percent believe vaping “poses a risk of harm.” Another survey showed that almost 36 percent of adult Americans believed e-cigs are about as harmful as combustible cigarettes. Perceptions of vaping harm have increased slightly since last year among all three MTF age groups, but overall remain closer to the scientific consensus than do adult beliefs.

This is the second year that the MTF survey has asked teens about e-cigarette use. And both times, a large majority of high school vapers have reported using vapor products with no nicotine. The revelation that most teens don’t vape nicotine was the subject of a paper earlier this year by the MTF investigators (based on last year’s data).

This year — again — fewer than 25 percent of 12th grade survey participants reported vaping nicotine. And even fewer of the younger students used e-cigarettes containing nicotine.

We still prefer our moral panic, thanks

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Sadly, the same scientists who authored the paper challenging the teen nicotine “problem” are now using this year’s MTF survey press release to speculate that vaping might lead to future cigarette smoking. Richard Miech, a senior investigator on the MTF project, made a point of noting the “increasing number” of studies that show vaping “predicts future smoking.” He didn’t bother explaining that those studies were either based on small or locale-specific samples, or used questionable methodology.

“Vaping may lead to friendship networks that encourage vapers to smoke,” Miech speculated. “Also, vapers may come to believe the dangers of smoking are exaggerated if they do not experience any immediate health consequences from vaping.”

It’s a shame that even a researcher who conducts careful, well-designed surveys feels the need to construct a fear narrative in the press release to pump up media interest. There’s a perfectly compelling story here in the data itself. But perhaps Miech is trying to piggyback on the Surgeon General’s alarmist report.

And the Surgeon General may have released his call-to-panic last week to avoid being questioned about the clear story the MTF survey tells. After all, it would look pretty silly to release 300 pages of carefully crafted fear mongering after real-life data had already showed that teen vaping and smoking are both in serious decline.

“It is interesting that the Surgeon General released his report just prior to the release of these new data.” wrote Dr. Michael Siegel. “Perhaps he realized that once these data came out, his ‘story’ about the scourge of e-cigarettes would be destroyed, so he wanted to get it in so it could have the maximum media impact.”

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Jim McDonald
I spend most of my time studying the regulatory, legislative and scientific challenges to vaping, advocating for our right to exist, and talking with others who do the same. Consider me a source for information, and feel free to agree or disagree with anything I say. I love good coffee and sweet Michigan cherries. My childhood hero was Gordie Howe.