Youth Smoking Rates Hit Record Low

Study shows significant decline, calling into question CDC's "gateway" e-cig statements

Melissa Vonder Haar, Freelance Writer

Monitoring the Future

ANN ARBOR, Mich. --Last month, the University of Michigan published results from its annual Monitoring the Future study, which has been tracking teen smoking rates since 1975. Surveying 40,000 to 50,000 students in grades 8, 10 and 12, researchers reported the percentage of students who had smoked at all in the past 30 days fell from 10.6% in 2012 to 9.6% in 2013--a figure a University of Michigan press release described as "a statistically significant drop."

"This year's decline means that the number of youngsters actively smoking has dropped by almost one-tenth over just the past year, and it follows a decline of about the same magnitude last year," Lloyd Johnston, the principal investigator of the study, said in the press release. "Since teen smoking reached a peak around 1996-1997, the rates of current (past 30-day) smoking have fallen by nearly 80% among 8th graders, 70% among 10th graders and over 50% among 12th graders."

The study seems to directly contradict statements made by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) in September, in response to a steep increase in the percentage of teens who had tried electronic cigarettes according to its National Youth Tobacco Survey.

"Many teens who start with e-cigarettes may be condemned to struggling with a lifelong addiction to nicotine and conventional cigarettes," warned CDC director Tom Frieden.

"[The Monitoring the Future] results hardly seem consistent with the CDC's statements that electronic cigarette use is causing an alarming increase in youth smoking," Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor of Community Health Sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health, wrote in his Tobacco Analyses blog. "Interestingly, it is also possible that electronic cigarettes could have exactly the opposite effect."

Siegel went on to explain that some teenagers who would normally try a combustible cigarette might try an electronic cigarette instead. If so, traditional cigarettes could be significantly less appealing to such individuals compared to the experience of vaping. After all, there are several adult smokers who have switched to electronic cigarettes for this very reason.

"Many vapers have reported that after switching to electronic cigarettes, they have lost the desire to return to smoking because the taste of tobacco cigarettes is no longer pleasant after having experienced the flavors of electronic cigarettes," Siegel said. "It is possible, then, that electronic cigarettes do not serve as a gateway to tobacco smoking but instead, serve as a sort of barrier to tobacco smoking."

Though Siegel acknowledged the need for further research on electronic cigarette use among minors, he called for a science-based approach to regulating the new segment.

"It is time that policy decisions be guided by science rather than politics," he said. "And the science is now in. It indicates that youth smoking levels are at record lows, which casts serious doubt on the hypothesis that electronic cigarettes are fueling an alarming increase in youth smoking."