For the first time, researchers are seeing signs that American teens may be turning away from electronic cigarettes.
An annual survey involving thousands of middle and high school students from across the nation found that use of e-cigarettes — both experimentally and on a regular basis — declined in 2016 after reaching an all-time high in 2015.
This year, 26.6% of students said they had tried the devices at least once in their lives, and 9.9% had used them within 30 days of being surveyed, according to the new Monitoring the Future report from the University of Michigan. Last year, those figures were 29.9% and 12.8%, respectively.
Vaping was less prevalent among students in all three grades surveyed. Current use of e-cigarettes dropped from 8% to 6.2% among eighth-graders, from 14.2% to 11% among high school sophomores, and from 16.3% to 12.5% among high school seniors, according to the report.
The year-to-year decline might turn out to be a fluke, and 2017 could see a return to the previously steady rise that pushed e-cigarettes ahead of traditional cigarettes as teens' smoking device of choice (a milestone first detected by the 2014 Monitoring the Future report). But there's reason to believe the turnaround is for real.
"The fact that we see this decline in all three grades – eighth, 10th and 12th – signals to us that it's pretty robust and that it isn't just a blip," said Richard Miech, a senior investigator on the Monitoring the Future project.
It's not clear why fewer students used e-cigarettes in 2016 than in 2015. Teens don't see the devices as all that dangerous, though each grade saw a slight increase in the proportion of students who said vaping posed health risks. By 2016, 21% of eighth-graders, 19% of 10th-graders and 18% of 12th-graders shared this view, according to the report.
Hookah use also declined for the first time since researchers began tracking it in 2010. The drop-off was dramatic – 13% of high school seniors said they had used the water pipes in the past year, down from 20% in 2015. (Only 12th-graders are asked about hookah use.)
The reductions in vaping and hookah use were not offset by increases in cigarette smoking. On the contrary, current smoking reached the lowest levels seen since the survey began 42 years ago.
Between 2015 and 2016, smoking fell from 3.6% to 2.6% among eighth-graders, from 6.3% to 4.9% among sophomores, and from 11.4% to 10.5% among seniors. In the mid-1990s, when teen smoking was at its peak, 21.6% of eighth-graders, 30.4% of 10th-graders and 36.5% of 12th-graders said they had smoked within the previous 30 days, according to the report.
The Monitoring the Future study is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health. The 2016 results are based on responses from 17,643 students in eighth grade, 15,230 students in 10th grade and 12,600 students in 12th grade who were randomly selected from 372 public and private schools throughout the continental United States. The students completed the surveys at school.
Public health officials — especially Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — have been outspoken in their warnings about electronic cigarettes. With enticing flavors like chocolate mint and bubble gum, the devices have the potential to get teens hooked on nicotine. That, in turn, could pave the way for smoking traditional cigarettes.
Last week, the U.S. surgeon general released a hefty report that said "e-cigarette use among U.S. youth and young adults is now a major public health concern."
But if present trends continue and e-cigarette use keeps falling in 2017, it probably won't be because of warnings like these, said Miech, a professor at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research.
"If it does decline, it would probably be because it's considered uncool and it's gone out of fashion," he said.
The historic reduction in e-cigarette use was part of a broad decline in teens' use of drugs and alcohol in general, the survey revealed.
The proportion of students who said they drank alcohol in the last year and in the previous 30 days hit its lowest level in the 42 years of the study. Among eighth-graders, 17.5% drank at least once in 2016, and 7.3% drank in the last month. For 10th-graders, those figures were 38.3% and 19.9%, and for 12th-graders they were 55.5% and 33.2%.
The survey recorded continued declines in drunkenness, with 5.7% of eighth-graders, 20.5% of sophomores and 37.3% of seniors saying they'd been drunk in 2016. Binge-drinking also fell to 3% among eighth-graders, 10% among sophomores and 16% among seniors.
Illicit drug use is now lower than it's been since the early 1990s. In 2016, 12% of eighth-graders, 26.8% of 10th-graders and 38.3% of 12th-graders said they used some kind of illicit drug at some point during the year.
Use of ecstasy, Molly and other forms of the drug MDMA were below 1% for students at all grade levels. Synthetic marijuana (also known as "K-2" or "Spice") was less popular than it's been since researchers started tracking it in 2011, with 2.7% of eighth-graders, 3.3% of 10th-graders and 3.5% of 12th-graders trying it in the last year.
Teen interest in cocaine, heroin, LSD and methamphetamine generally declined or held steady. The same was true for recreational use of prescription stimulants (Ritalin and Adderall) and for prescription painkillers (OxyContin and Vicodin).
One exception to the overall trend was marijuana use by 12th-graders. In 2016, 36% of high school seniors said they had used the drug at least once in the last year. That has been the case since 2011, even as use among eighth- and 10th-graders has declined (to 9.4% and 24%, respectively).
The pattern was the same for frequent marijuana use, with 6% of seniors reporting daily or near-daily use in 2016. That figure hasn't really changed since 2010, even as frequent use fell among younger students. In 2016, 0.7% of eighth-graders and 2.5% of 10th-graders used pot at least 20 times in a 30-day period.
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11:20 a.m., Dec. 13: This story has been updated to include details on the report's findings about teens' use of alcohol and illicit drugs.