High school vapers often become heavy smokers

Also worrisome: Teen vaping rates are skyrocketing, according to a new report by the U.S. Surgeon General's office

Teens who take up e-cigarettes (right) appear to be more likely to eventually start smoking tobacco cigarettes (left). And a new report by the U.S. Surgeon General finds that teen vaping rates are currently skyrocketing.

Voyagerix/iStockphoto

E-cigarette use grew an astounding 900 percent among high school students from 2011 to 2015. That’s according to a report by the U.S. Surgeon General’s office, released December 8. It highlights the harmful effects of e-cigarettes, especially to young people.

E-cigarettes first went on sale in the United States in 2007. Back then, companies advertised them as an aid to help adults give up smoking tobacco. But nonsmokers soon took up e-cigs too . Among them have been teens and even preteens.  The Surgeon General’s report says the newly recognized drastic leap in e-cig use could lead many teens to try smoking.

And that would put a new generation of Americans at risk of nicotine addiction, says Thomas Wills. He works at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He’s also an expert on teen smoking rates. 

The Surgeon General’s report and other information about the health effects of e-cigarettes can be found at anew website: Know the Risks: E-cigarettes & Young People.

Two additional new studies back up what the Surgeon General’s office is saying. Both also shine some light on why teens choose to vape — and why some young vapers transition to smoking cigarettes.

Studies had shown that teens who vape are more likely to try cigarette smoking. And that’s disturbing because in the United States alone, the number of teen vapers nearly quadrupled between 2013 and 2015 — to more than 3 million. However, it has not been clear whether these kids who move on to tobacco “are just experimenting with smoking or whether they go on to become regular users,” says Adam Leventhal. He’s an addiction scientist at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles.

The distinction is important, he says. Teens who become regular smokers during high school are more likely to develop a lifelong addiction to nicotine. According to the Surgeon General’s Report, nine out of 10 adult smokers tried their first cigarettes during adolescence.

To dig into why some teens make this transition, Leventhal and his colleagues recruited more than 3,000 Los Angeles-area 10th graders into a study. The students filled out surveys in the fall and spring. Those questions asked the teens about whether they had vaped or smoked. The researchers then looked at whether the answers had differed between early and late in the school year.

And indeed they did. Vaping seemed to up the likelihood that a teen would start smoking, these data showed.

The researchers broke students into groups, based on their answers in the fall to whether and how often they vaped. One group reported never vaping. A second group said they had tried vaping, but not within the past month. A third group reported vaping on one or two days in the past month. The last group said they had vaped even more than that in the last 30 days.

And the likelihood that a student smoked in the spring doubled in each successive group. For instance, by the spring, students who had previously tried vaping were about two times as likely to use cigarettes as were teens who had never vaped. Each jump to a group that vaped more frequently roughly doubled the likelihood that a student would report frequent, heavy cigarette smoking in the spring. (People who smoked cigarettes on three or more days in the past month were deemed frequent smokers. Lighting up two or more cigarettes on any day was considered heavy use.)

Leventhal’s group published its findings online November 8 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The share of teens in this study who reported vaping was slightly lower than the national average. One in three students in the study said they had ever tried vaping. That’s about 4 percentage points lower than the national average for 10th graders. Similarly, about 9 percent of the California kids surveyed said they had vaped in the past month. That’s 5 percentage points lower than the U.S. average 10th graders, according to a February 2016 report. It was conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

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Teens exposed to e-cig ads are more likely to try vaping, a new study finds.csfotoimages/iStockphoto

One reason for the lower vaping rate in California could be that kids there also are somewhat less likely to smoke than elsewhere in the country, notes Wills.

It still isn’t clear why some teens make the transition from vaping to smoking, he says. Young people who vape might learn to like the feeling of lighting up, holding a cigarette-like device or inhaling. These are behaviors that are common to both electronic and tobacco cigarettes. That might make it easier for teens to transition to tobacco cigarettes. It’s also possible that kids who use e-cigarettes are getting hooked on nicotine, says Wills. This is the chemical that makes tobacco smoking so addictive. It’s also found in most e-cig liquids.

More research is needed, Wills says, to probe the role of nicotine in teens’ transition from vaping to smoking.

The influence of ads

“Use of e-cigarettes has been rising exponentially among youth,” says Hongying Dai. “Little is known about the factors contributing to this rise,” she adds. Dai is an epidemiologist — a scientist who studies disease risk. She works at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.  This researcher wondered whether the number of e-cig advertisements that kids see might affect how likely they were to vape. So she analyzed data from a national survey for clues that might confirm this.

More than 22,000 U.S. middle- and high-school students had filled out the survey about their smoking and vaping habits.

Compared to kids who rarely saw e-cig ads, those who saw them at least “sometimes” were much more likely to vape. Students who frequently ran into ads on the internet were about three times as likely to vape as were teens who reported never seeing such online ads. Kids who vaped also reported high exposure to e-cigarette ads in stores, newspapers and magazines, on TV and at the movies.

Family also seemed to play some role. Kids were more likely to vape if someone in their household used e-cigarettes, the researchers showed.

E-cigarette ads that target teens often portray vaping as glamorous or attractive, notes the Surgeon General’s report. Wills says the tobacco industry used these same tactics to encourage cigarette smoking by young people a generation ago.

Still, some questions remain. For instance, Dai asks, how accurately did the teens report encountering e-cigarette ads? And do all kids notice e-cig ads equally? Or are kids who vape just more likely to pay attention to vape ads?

Dai says she expected to see a link between ads and vaping. Tobacco advertising has been linked to increases in youth smoking rates, she notes. It therefore makes sense that exposure to e-cig advertising could affect teen vaping, she says.

Findings from the second study appear in the August Journal of Adolescent Health

Lindsey Konkel likes to write stories about the environment and health for Science News for Students. She has degrees in biology and journalism. She has three cats, Misty, Trumpet and Charlotte, and one dog, Lucky.

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