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A recent survey of teenagers also found that marijuana use was relatively stable in the early part of this year and that cigarette smoking was at historic lows.
Nicotine and marijuana vaping among teenagers remained at high levels, but showed signs of plateauing early this year, according to a newly released National Institute on Drug Abuse study.
The findings come after a sharp rise in teen vaping elicited public health concerns and in some cases spurred state and local lawmakers to impose new restrictions. Anti-smoking advocates warn that the vaping surge could erode declines in nicotine addiction seen as fewer young people took up smoking cigarettes over the past 20 years.
Past National Institute on Drug Abuse findings show that between 2017 and 2019 the share of eighth graders who said they vaped nicotine over the prior 12 months grew to over 16% from around 7%. For 10th graders the share of vapers rose to around 30% from nearly 16%. For high school seniors it jumped to around 35% from nearly 19%.
In 2020, the rates for those three age groups, from youngest to oldest, were more or less steady at 16.6%, 30.7%, and 34.5% respectively, according to new survey results released this week.
The share of teens who reported vaping marijuana during the past year was also relatively steady in early 2020, the study found—8% of eighth graders, 19% of 10th graders and 22% of 12th graders.
NIDA’s latest report is based on 11,821 survey responses gathered in 112 schools around the country from Feb. 11 through March 14, 2020. The coronavirus outbreak stopped data collection short, but researchers say they had enough information to produce the report. University of Michigan Institute for Social Research investigators did the survey work. NIDA funded it.
Dr. Nora Volkow, NIDA’s director, said that, in her view, the most important finding from this year’s survey was that, after seeing what was more or less a doubling of vaping of nicotine and THC among tenth and twelfth graders, it looked to be leveling off.
“It seems to have stabilized,” she said.
Rates of cigarette smoking remain at historic lows among teens. “The lowest we've ever had in the survey,” Volkow said.
Alcohol use has not significantly changed over the past five years, NIDA said. And the use of marijuana in all forms also appeared stable in the most recent survey.
The study’s finding about stable marijuana use is notable because 15 states have now moved to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana for adults, including four states where voters approved marijuana ballot measures in the November election.
“It is reassuring to see that rates of marijuana use among our young people have not increased, even as we have moved forward with more progressive marijuana policy reform,” Sheila Vakharia, deputy director of the Department of Research and Academic Engagement for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement.
“Regulated markets can help to restrict access to underage minors while protecting public health,” Vakharia added.
Data presented with the survey findings show in 2018 and 2019 between 78% and 80% of 12th graders said it would be “fairly easy” or “very easy” to get marijuana if they wanted some.
But that figure has been up over 80% during most years, dating back to the 1970s. In the mid-1990s and early 2000s, long before legal recreational marijuana was common, between 88% and 90% of high school seniors indicated they wouldn’t have trouble scoring some pot.
Volkow, who commented on the new study in a pre-recorded video, cautioned that because the survey ended early as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, it does not reflect the jarring changes many teenagers have experienced this year as schools shifted to remote learning and activities like social gatherings and sports have been canceled or restricted.
She also said it’s hard to predict how the pandemic will affect substance use among teenagers. For instance, peer pressure is a factor when teenagers decide whether to drink or use drugs. But, at the same time, people might turn more to drugs and other substances to cope with pandemic-related stress.
Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.