Monday, June 5, 2023

Is Industry to Blame for Teen Substance Use?


I’m a member of a tobacco policy discussion group that has focused many times on the so-called epidemic of teen vaping.  One recent exchange centered on how e-cigarette and vape manufacturers and retailers might demonstrate to government regulators and policymakers that they are serious about not marketing their products to children.  Frankly, I take issue with the underlying assumption that the industry is actually responsible for teen behaviors.

First, let’s define the so-called epidemic.  The first chart at left represents “current” – that is, past-30-day – nicotine vaping prevalence rates among U.S. high school seniors, according to the federal Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey.  In 2017, the first year the MTF collected this information, 11% of seniors vaped.  Over the next five years, the percentage spiked to over 25%, then settled at around 20%.  A similar pattern is seen in National Youth Tobacco Surveys covering 2013 to 2022 (here). 

Now, ask yourself: Do vape companies play any role in this teen vaping “epidemic”? 

If you answer NO, I agree with you, but if you answered YES, please examine the next chart.


Here we see the same vaping numbers, but with the addition of current alcohol use rates for the past 32 years.  Although the trend is going in a welcome direction, 28% of high school seniors in 2022 were current drinkers, putting them at far greater risk than the smaller percentage who were vaping.  Note that all of these teens were under the legal age to purchase alcohol or vape products.

Does the alcohol industry play a role in teen drinking?

Oddly, in contrast to the obsession with vaping, little is said about teen drinking, despite widespread alcohol advertisements and the more immediate and greater dangers posed to underage drinkers.  Parents Against Vaping E-cigarettes (PAVE) and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (CTFK) portray nicotine vaping as the ruination of an entire generation.  Where are the pressure groups for teen drinking and binge drinking?

If you still blame corporate America for teen alcohol use, consider the next chart. It includes marijuana use, the rate of which has remained above 20% for high school seniors since 1995.



What industry is responsible for teen marijuana use?  

Until recent years, marijuana, which is still federally illegal, was prohibited in all 50 states, so there were no corporations producing or marketing it.  Industry would appear to be blameless for any underage consumption.


The explanation for teen substance use is that adolescents are strongly attracted to adult behaviors and adult products.  Blaming the vape industry while giving the alcohol industry a pass is illogical.  Teen marijuana use underscores the fact that young people will adopt adult behaviors regardless of industry marketing.

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