Why the rise in youth e-cigarette use may be worse than we think
Data on e-cigarettes show that they are the most popular tobacco products among youth, with more than 11 percent reporting in 2016 that they currently use the devices. If that sounds concerning, consider this: there is good reason to believe that the numbers are underestimating the problem.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Youth Tobacco Survey, youth e-cigarette use increased tenfold between 2011 and 2015. This increase sounded alarms — the surgeon general declared in a 2016 report that e-cigarette use among young people “is now a major public health concern” because early e-cigarette use and nicotine addiction can harm brain development and increase the risk of young people smoking cigarettes.
But accurately measuring youth vaping is challenging because of the variety of products and their rapid growth in recent years. Survey data rely on self-reporting, and the terminology surrounding these electronic devices continues to evolve and may not be accurately captured in survey options. For example, a young person who says they “vape” or “JUUL” may not consider the products they use to be e-cigarettes, and may not report use on a survey that only uses that term. Many young people also do not know that the products they use contain nicotine, and that lack of awareness could be causing significant underestimates in reports of nicotine consumption.