Among Teens, Vaping Is Popular But Opioid Use Hits Historic Lows

Monitoring the Future survey shows marijuana use remains common

Nearly one in three students in 12th grade report past-year use of a vaping device, raising concerns about the impact on their health. What they say is in the device, however, ranges from nicotine to marijuana to “just flavoring,” according to the 2017 Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey of eighth, 10th, and 12th graders in schools nationwide. The survey also suggests that use of hookahs and regular cigarettes is declining.

The findings were reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and scientists from the University of Michigan, who conduct the annual research. The survey asks teens about “any vaping” to measure their use of electronic vaporizers. Some research suggests that many teens do not actually know what is in the device they are using, and even if they read the label, not all labeling is consistent or accurate.

The survey shows that 27.8% of high school seniors reported “vaping” in the year prior to the survey, which was taken in the beginning of 2017. When asked what they thought was in the mist they inhaled the last time they used the vaping device, 51.8% of 12th graders said “just flavoring,” 32.8% said “nicotine,” and 11.1% said “marijuana” or “hash oil.” The survey also asks about vaping with specific substances during the past month. Among 12th graders, more than one in 10 say they use nicotine, and about one in 20 report using marijuana in the device.

“We are especially concerned because the survey shows that some of the teens using these devices are first-time nicotine users,” said Nora D. Volkow, MD, director of NIDA. “Recent research suggests that some of them could move on to regular cigarette smoking, so it is critical that we intervene with evidence-based efforts to prevent youth from using these products.”

The survey also indicates that while opioid overdose rates remain high among adults, teens are misusing opioid pain medications less frequently than a decade ago, and are at historic lows with some of the commonly used pain medications. For example, past year misuse of the opioid pain reliever Vicodin among high school seniors dropped to its lowest point since the survey began measuring it in 2002, and it is now at just 2%. This reflects a long-term decline from a peak of 10.5% in 2003.

In overall pain medication misuse, described as “narcotics other than heroin” in the survey, past year misuse has dropped significantly among 12th graders since its survey peak in 2004—to 4.2% from 9.5%. Teens also think these drugs are not as easy to get as they used to be. Only 35.8% of 12th graders said they were easily available in the 2017 survey, compared to more than 54% in 2010.

“The decline in both the misuse and perceived availability of opioid medications may reflect recent public health initiatives to discourage opioid misuse to address this crisis,” added Dr. Volkow.

The 2017 survey also confirms the recent trend that daily marijuana use has become as, or more, popular than daily cigarette smoking among teens, representing a dramatic flip in use between these two drugs since the survey began in 1975. In the past decade, daily marijuana use among 12th graders has remained relatively consistent, but daily cigarette smoking has dropped.

When combining responses in all three grades, data suggest past year marijuana use is up slightly to 23.9%, from 22.6% last year, but similar to 2015 rates (23.7%). However, because overall marijuana rates remain stable, researchers continue to carefully monitor any potential trends as they emerge. The survey indicates that significantly fewer teens now disapprove of regular marijuana use, with 64.7% of 12th graders voicing disapproval, compared to 68.5% last year.

The survey reports that high school seniors in states with medical marijuana laws are more likely to have vaped marijuana and consumed marijuana edibles than their counterparts without such laws. For example, survey data suggests that 16.7% of 12th graders in states with medical marijuana laws report consuming edibles, compared to 8.3% in states without such laws. 

Inhalant use is back up to 2015 levels among eighth graders, measured at 4.7%, compared to 3.8% in 2016. However, rates show a significant decline from peak rates in 1995, when 12.8% of eighth graders reported using an inhalant to get high in the past year.

Overall, illicit drug use other than marijuana and inhalants remains the lowest in the history of the survey in all three grades, with 13.3% of 12th graders reporting past year use, compared to 9.4% of 10th graders and 5.8% of eighth graders.

Source: National Institutes of Health; December 14, 2017.