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Teens don’t always know what they’re vaping, study says

Teenagers’ use and misuse of illicit and prescription drugs continues to remain low, a new study has found, but the growing popularity of electronic vaporizers has raised new concerns about their long-term health.

The study, called Monitoring the Future, was released Thursday by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the University of Michigan. It surveyed more than 43,000 eighth, 10th and 12th graders across the country in early 2017 about their use of drugs and other substances in the past year. It found a second consecutive year of historically low use of illicit drugs other than marijuana.

According to the study, 5.8 percent of eighth graders, 9.4 percent of 10th graders, and 13.3 percent of 12th graders reported using illicit drugs this year. That’s compared to peak levels of roughly 13.1 percent for eighth graders in 1996, 18.4 percent for 10th graders in 1996, and 21.6 percent for 12th graders in 2001.

Prescription opioid misuse was also historically low among teens enrolled in school, despite the high levels of opioid misuse among adults. In 2017, the misuse of Vicodin, a prescription opioid pain reliever, dropped by 51 percent among eighth graders, 67 percent among 10th graders, and 74 percent among 12th graders — a decrease that could be a result of public health initiatives discouraging opioid misuse, said Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of NIDA, which has helped run the annual study since 1975.

“The hope would be that we as a society and as pediatricians, are doing a better job at educating our patients that opioids are really not something we want to mess with,” said Dr. Jennifer Plumb, who sits on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ National Committee on Substance Use and Prevention. “Hopefully we’re doing a better job at being more conservative with prescribing … As we are getting smarter and more conservative with our opioid prescriptions, we are hopefully limiting access through diversion.”

But the survey did find that more than 13 percent of eighth graders, 23 percent of 10th graders, and 27 percent of 12th graders tried “vaping” at some point last year. Using electronic vaporizers was the third-most common form of substance use among high school seniors and 10th graders, and the second-most among 8th graders.

Students were also asked about the substances they consumed when they vaped. Flavoring, or filling the devices with flavored “e-liquid” that does not contain nicotine, was the most common, but some teens noted they didn’t always know what was in the device, said Volkow. Others reported vaping nicotine and marijuana.

Those findings raised concerns that vaping nicotine could prompt students to try smoking similar substances regularly, such as tobacco cigarettes.

“This is worrisome because we have done big strides in decreasing the use of smoking among teenagers with all of the very positive consequences,” Volkow said. “And we may lose some of that territory if we don’t pay attention to the transition from vaping nicotine into combustible tobacco.”

Cigarettes are arranged for a photograph in New York. Photo by Chris Goodney/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The findings suggest that marijuana use among teens in the three age groups was up slightly to 23.9 percent, from 22.6 percent last year. Daily use of marijuana for adolescents also became as, or more, popular than daily cigarette smoking, the survey found.

The University of Michigan’s Dr. Richard Miech, a co-investigator of the study, said the uptick in marijuana use this year can be attributed to changes in state laws regarding marijuana use.

“More states are legalizing marijuana use,” he said. “A lot of youth are interpreting that legalization as a sign that states are sanctioning it; that it’s OK.”

The NIDA study showed a different trend in marijuana use than government findings from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health released Monday. In that survey, conducted between 2015 and 2016, people aged 12 and older shared details about drug use, including marijuana, in the past month, the past year and over their lifetime. Among youths ages 12 to 17, attending school or not, 6.8 percent said they smoked marijuana at least once in the past month in 2016. That’s slightly less than the 7 percent the study logged one year earlier. In Colorado, one of the first states to legalize marijuana, monthly use among all teens dropped significantly from 11 percent in 2015 to 9 percent in 2016, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Miech said NIDA’s latest study focuses on more recent responses from a slightly older group of teens. Marijuana use is lower among teens who are younger, as in the NSDUH study, he said. NIDA’s data is limited to teenagers who are in school, and it does not observe students who dropped out, which could also affect the overall results, Volkow said.

Both studies found dwindling use of cigarettes.

NIDA’s survey also shows that though binge drinking continues to decline, it appears to have leveled off this past year.

Data Producer Laura Santhanam contributed to this report.