With easy e-cig access, teen vaping soars

Nearly every state bans sales of vape products to minors, yet kids can readily buy them online

man holding vaping liquid

TAKING A HIT  The hit of nicotine that vapers get from each puff on an e-cigarette comes from the liquids vaporized through the device. Some small bottles of these liquids have enough nicotine to kill an adult.

Steve Zylius/UCI

In 2013, nearly three times as many U.S. high school students smoked cigarettes as vaped electronic cigarettes. By 2015, the trend reversed. Nearly twice as many vaped as smoked, a new study finds. For middle school students, the preference for vaping over smoking cigarettes was even stronger (2.3-fold).

Federal researchers analyzed data from the National Youth Tobacco Survey and found that some 2.39 million U.S. high school kids vaped in 2015. Fewer high schoolers, about 1.37 million, smoked cigarettes, the researchers report in the April 15 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Since 2011, teen use of tobacco products has fallen for all categories but two: e-cigarettes and hookahs (although even hookah use has dropped since 2014). In fact, the federal researchers conclude, the steep growth in vaping seems to be keeping overall teen tobacco use stable.

The vast majority of U.S. states have banned sales of vaping supplies to minors, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Yet “minors do not face any significant barrier in purchasing liquid nicotine over the Internet” to vape in e-cigs, a second new study shows.

Last summer, Dmitriy Nikitin of the University of California, Irvine and his colleagues recruited three teens to buy e-liquids from 120 different U.S. online vaping-supply vendors. Only four stores did not sell e-liquids to the 16- and 17-year-olds. “I was really blown away,” Nikitin says. His team published its findings online March 19 in Nicotine & Tobacco Research.

Some of the stores packaged their e-liquids with child-friendly bonuses: toy frogs, stickers, little green army men or candy such as SweeTarts. On May 5, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced sweeping new regulations for e-cigs, hookahs and other tobacco products. 

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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