Despite claims by health agencies and tobacco control groups that flavored disposable vapes would ignite a new “epidemic” of youth vaping, fewer American students vaped in 2023 than vaped last year. The decline extended a trend in place since the 2019 youth vaping high-water mark.
The results come from National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS) preliminary data, released in today’s CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The NYTS, conducted annually by the CDC and the FDA Center for Tobacco Products (CTP), was administered this year between March 9 and June 16 to a representative sample of 22,069 American middle school (grades 6–8) and high school (grades 9–12) students. The complete results will be released around the end of the year.
The story of declining youth vaping, however, will not be the narrative shared by public health agencies. As they did after last year’s encouraging NYTS results, the FDA and CDC will continue to cite grave concerns over flavored products “targeted at youth,” disposable vapes, and anything that helps maintain the story of a dangerous “epidemic” of youth usage.
Vaping by middle and high school students has now declined 61.5 percent since its 2019 peak. Past-30 day vaping by students in grades 6-12 was at just 7.7 percent in 2023—down from 20.0 percent in 2019, when claims that vaping had “hooked a new generation” to nicotine were heard daily.
Since 2019, when more than a quarter of high school students surveyed had tried vaping within the past 30 days, high school vaping has declined by 63.6 percent (27.5 to 10.0 percent). Middle school past-30 day use increased slightly this year (from 3.6 percent in 2022 to 4.6 percent), but has declined overall by 56.2 percent since 2019.
In 2019, many believed youth vaping was a juggernaut of dangerous behavior that only draconian laws and regulations could tame. In retrospect, it may have been more like a teenage fad—more disturbing to parents and teachers than hula-hoops or Tamagotchis, but similarly fueled by the mysterious elements that drive any momentarily popular activity. It’s worth remembering that, even at its height, more than 70 percent of high school students never tried vaping.
High school vaping has now fallen to its lowest rate (10.0 percent) since 2013—and smoking cigarettes has nearly disappeared from schools altogether.
Past-30 day smoking among all grades was at 1.6 percent—the third year in a row it has remained below 2.0 percent—and among high school students it was just 1.9 percent. Even fewer teenagers used smokeless tobacco (1.2 percent) or nicotine pouches (1.5 percent).
Disposable vapes led the way among favored devices by teenage users, which probably says more about the market than it does about teenagers. Kids vape what’s available, and fruit-flavored disposables are the most popular products among vapers of all ages, and therefore the most available.
Disposables were most often used device type at 60.7 percent—an increase over last year’s 55.3 percent. Pod vapes sank in popularity, from 25.2 percent in 2022 to 16.1 percent this year. And use of open-system vapes (refillable devices) fell from 6.7 last year to just 5.9 percent in 2023.
Amazingly, 17.3 percent of past 30 day users didn’t know what kind of vape they had used—an increase from 12.8 percent last year. That result is never reported by major news outlets, but it says a lot about the lack of commitment to vaping shown by nearly one in five of those who report doing it.
Among brands used, Elf Bar crushed the competition. It was listed on 56.7 percent of survey responses (users could choose multiple answers), far outpacing second-place finisher “Not sure or don’t know” (23.9 percent). Esco Bar was third (21.6 percent), Vuse finished fourth (20.7 percent), “Some other brand not listed” was fifth (17.3 percent), and poor Juul—once the leader in illicit youth usage—finished in sixth place (16.5 percent).
Journalists: You ran breathless pieces about disposables–some with sales data clearly supplied to you by Altria or Reynolds–and what happened?
Cigarette sales down, youth vaping down, adult vaping up.
Proud of yourselves?
— Gregory Conley (@GregTHR) November 2, 2023
Notably, Puff Bar—the NYTS brand leader in both 2021 and 2022—didn’t even appear on this year’s list of favorite brands. That’s something the CDC and FDA should get used to, as disposable manufacturers change the names and appearance of their products to avoid enforcement. Now that the manufacturers and distributors of “unauthorized” disposables are being targeted not just by the FDA, but also by their Big Tobacco vape competitors, expect the disposable brand landscape to get scrambled and rearranged every few months.
Fruit flavors were the most popular among NYTS participants, with 63.4 percent listing those among the flavors they had used in the past 30 days. “Candy, desserts or other sweets” followed, at 35.0 percent, and mint and menthol both came in above 20 percent. In fifth place (11.6 percent) came “Unflavored”—and here we should mention that bored students might just mess around with their answers. Unflavored vapes are uncommon and unlikely to be popular in mass-market vape outlets.
A large number (57.9 percent) of teenage vapers said they used products with the name “Ice,” which lines up almost perfectly with the number who reported using disposables. Many disposables bear the descriptor “ice” in the flavor name to denote a menthol or menthol-like coolness.
The federal agencies will undoubtedly trumpet the popularity of non-tobacco vape flavors in their press releases, claiming that flavors “drive” youth use of vaping products. In reality, flavored vapes are simply the products preferred by adult users, and kids are forced to use whatever is available.