A new study gives the first U.S. estimates of teen and preteen vaping of marijuana — and the rates are relatively high. The findings raise concerns about addiction and other long-term health risks, researchers say.
E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that vaporize liquids. Most e-liquids contain nicotine. That’s the chemical that makes tobacco addictive. But the devices also can vaporize dried marijuana leaves or buds. Or they can use oils or waxes made from the plant’s main active ingredient, THC. That’s short for tetrahydrocannabinol.
In fact, several things might make vaping marijuana appealing to kids, observes Bonnie Halpern-Felsher. For instance, she notes, vaping leaves less of the drug’s telltale odor than does smoking it. That may encourage teens to try it, she says. Halpern-Felsher works at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California. She was not involved in the new study. But as a developmental psychologist, she studies why teens and young adults make risky choices, such as using drugs.
Marijuana also may be easier to get as it is legal in some states for adults to buy and use this drug. And, she notes, changing public views may make its use seem more socially acceptable.
Millions of kids at risk
E-cigs are the most widely used tobacco products among U.S. youth. In contrast, data on teen vaping of marijuana had been fairly scant. So a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Ga., analyzed a survey of kids from around the nation. This 2016 National Youth Tobacco Survey included 20,675 sixth- to 12th-graders. The students reported whether they had used e-cigs. They also reported what substances they had vaped.
Nearly nine in every 100 of the students reported vaping marijuana. Among those who had used e-cigs before, the number rose to more than 30 in every 100. Based on the survey results, the researchers estimate that nearly 1 in 3 U.S. high school students who use e-cigs have already vaped pot. That would amount to some 1.7 million teens. For middle schoolers, they estimate the rate is nearly 1 in every 4 who have vaped, or about 425,000 kids. The team reported its findings online September 17 in JAMA Pediatrics.
Halpern-Felsher isn’t too surprised by those numbers. Indeed, she says, the number of youth who vape “weed” is concerning. “You’re basically using it in a very strong form.” The marijuana available today often contains a higher dose of the active chemicals than in the past. Plus, the THC level in vaporized oils and waxes can be four to 30 times as high as that in dried marijuana.
And, adds Halpern-Felsher, teens face a special risk from the drug. Because their brains are still developing, she notes, “Youth are at a very vulnerable time.” That’s one reason they are at a higher risk for addiction than are adults. What’s more, damage to brain function from the drug can be worse during adolescence. Marijuana use has been linked to depression and memory problems. Once marijuana is introduced, “you’re altering the brain forever,” she says.
Overall, e-cig use among students is rising. That’s the finding of another recent CDC report. In 2017, nearly 12 in every 100 high school students and 3 in every 100 middle schoolers reported vaping. Scott Gottlieb is the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This government agency regulates tobacco and other drugs. Gottlieb has raised concerns that teenage vaping has become a public health crisis. On September 12, he gave a speech at the agency’s headquarters. He announced that the FDA would crack down on stores selling e-cigarettes to kids, which is illegal. And he warned e-cig makers that flavored liquids could be banned.
Concluded Gottlieb, “We see clear signs that youth use of electronic cigarettes has reached an epidemic proportion.”
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adolescent Someone in that transitional stage of physical and psychological development that begins at the onset of puberty, typically between the ages of 11 and 13, and ends with adulthood.
battery A device that can convert chemical energy into electrical energy.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC An agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, CDC is charged with protecting public health and safety by working to control and prevent disease, injury and disabilities. It does this by investigating disease outbreaks, tracking exposures by Americans to infections and toxic chemicals, and regularly surveying diet and other habits among a representative cross-section of all Americans.
chemical A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.
depression A low spot, such as in a field or the surface of a rock. (in medicine) A mental illness characterized by persistent sadness and apathy. Although these feelings can be triggered by events, such as the death of a loved one or the move to a new city, that isn’t typically considered an “illness” — unless the symptoms are prolonged and harm an individual’s ability to perform normal daily tasks (such as working, sleeping or interacting with others). People suffering from depression often feel they lack the energy needed to get anything done. They may have difficulty concentrating on things or showing an interest in normal events. Many times, these feelings seem to be triggered by nothing; they can appear out of nowhere.
developmental (in biology) An adjective that refers to the changes an organism undergoes from conception through adulthood. Those changes often involve chemistry, size and sometimes even shape.
e-cigarette or e-cig (short for electronic cigarette) This is a battery-powered device that disperses nicotine and other chemicals as tiny airborne particles that users can inhale. They were originally developed as a safer alternative to cigarettes that users could use as they tried to slowly break their addiction to the nicotine in tobacco products. These devices heat up a flavored liquid until it evaporates, producing vapors. People who use these devices are known as vapers.
e-liquid A term for the solutions heated to the evaporation point in an electronic cigarette. These solutions are the basis of the vapors that will be inhaled. The liquid typically contains a solvent into which flavorings and nicotine have been dissolved.
epidemic A widespread outbreak of an infectious disease that sickens many people (or other organisms) in a community at the same time. The term also may be applied to non-infectious diseases or conditions that have spread in a similar way.
Food and Drug Administration (or FDA) A part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, FDA is charged with overseeing the safety of many products. For instance, it is responsible for making sure drugs are properly labeled, safe and effective; that cosmetics and food supplements are safe and properly labeled; and that tobacco products are regulated.
high school A designation for grades nine through 12 in the U.S. system of compulsory public education. High-school graduates may apply to colleges for further, advanced education.
marijuana A mind-altering drug. It is made from the leaves (and sometimes stems or seeds) of the Cannabis sativa plant. This drug also goes by the colloquial terms pot and weed.
nicotine A colorless, oily chemical produced in tobacco and certain other plants. It creates the “buzz” associated with smoking. Highly addictive, nicotine is the substance that makes it hard for smokers to give up their use of cigarettes. The chemical is also a poison, sometimes used as a pesticide to kill insects and even some invasive snakes or frogs.
online (n.) On the internet. (adj.) A term for what can be found or accessed on the internet.
pediatrics A field of medicine that has to do with children and especially child health. A doctor who works in this field is known as a pediatrician.
proportion The amount of a certain component of a mixture relative to other components. For example, if a bag contains 2 apples and 3 oranges, the proportion of apples to oranges in the bag is 2 to 3.
psychologist A scientist or mental-health professional who studies the human mind, especially in relation to actions and behaviors.
regulate (n. regulation) To control with actions. Governments write rules and regulations — laws — that are enforced by police and the courts.
risk The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. (For instance: Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.)
smoking A term for the deliberate inhalation of tobacco smoke from burning cigarettes.
survey (v.) To ask questions that glean data on the opinions, practices (such as dining or sleeping habits), knowledge or skills of a broad range of people. Researchers select the number and types of people questioned in hopes that the answers these individuals give will be representative of others who are their age, belong to the same ethnic group or live in the same region. (n.) The list of questions that will be offered to glean those data.
tobacco A plant cultivated for its leaves, which many people burn in cigars, cigarettes, and pipes. Tobacco leaves also are sometimes chewed. The main active drug in tobacco leaves is nicotine, a powerful stimulant (and poison).
vaping (v. to vape) A slang term for the use of e-cigarettes because these devices emit vapor, not smoke. People who do this are referred to as vapers.
vaporize To convert from a liquid to a gas (or vapor) through the application of heat.
Journal: K.F. Trivers et al. Prevalence of cannabis use in electronic cigarettes among US youth. JAMA Pediatrics. Published online September 17, 2018. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.1920.
Journal: T.W. Wang et al. Tobacco product use among middle and high school students – United States, 2011-2017. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Vol. 67, June 8, 2018, p. 629. doi: 10.15585/mmwr.mm6722a3.