Pull back the pandemic and there’s teen vaping...again

National survey finds drop, but data collection differed in 2021

BOSTON — The pandemic cast a long shadow over the problem of teen vaping. But that doesn’t mean it went away.

“The majority of the students we work with say stress, anxiety and depression have increased their use [of vaping products],” said Jennifer Knight-Levine, executive director of the SAFE Coalition, an organization that works on substance abuse and other social issues in the suburbs of Boston.

Knight-Levine said vaping also increased during the pandemic because it was more available to students learning remotely, either through products purchased by parents or older siblings or through illegal use of vape product delivery services.

While some students may have begun using the products for fun, Knight-Levine pointed out many contain nicotine, one of the most powerfully addictive substances known.

“Many of the adolescents that we work with highlight to us that they choose e-cigarettes with a fruit flavor because they know they know that smoking cigarettes is bad and they don’t associate e-cigarettes that are fruit-flavored with nicotine cigarettes,” Knight-Levine said.

That local trend is a national one as well. This year’s National Youth Tobacco Survey, jointly conducted by the CDC and the FDA, found 85% of ‘current’ teen vapers used flavored products, with fruit-flavored options the overwhelming favorite, followed by vape flavors that resembled candy, dessert, mint and menthol.

Overall, the survey found under 8% of middle and high school students currently vape. That amounts to about two million students. It’s a drop from the 2020 survey, but the FDA cautions against comparing surveys from the two years.

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In 2021, students completed the survey online, where they learned; so, in many cases, at home. In previous years, the surveys were completed at school.

Dr. Denitza Blagev is a pulmonologist who researches vaping at Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City, Utah. She is also seeing increased use of the products.

“We’re finding that with COVID and pandemic stress and social isolation, there are definitely people reporting that they’re vaping a lot more than they were vaping before because that’s the way they were coping with stress during the pandemic,” Blagev said.

And that’s leading to emergency department visits for lung injuries associated with vaping that resemble COVID infections, Blagev said. Shortness of breath and abnormalities on chest imaging are features common to both illnesses.

Something else worrisome about vaping during the pandemic, Blagev said: Animal studies showing vaping weakens the ability of lung cells to fend off viral attacks, including COVID-19. Still, she said the majority of vapers don’t become sick from their activity, at least in the short term. Not that anyone should take comfort in that, necessarily.

“The concern is really one that, just like conventional cigarettes, it was decades between when people were smoking and when we would recognize the consequences [like] lung cancer, COPD and emphysema,” Blagev said.

Problems with a teen (ages 14-18) vaping? You can contact the SAFE Coalition for help at www.safecoalitionma.org or 774-847-9474.

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