Study finds teens more likely to vape flavoring than nicotine

Saturday, September 10, 2016 - 11:16pm

Though nicotine’s addictive qualities are the most obvious reason for why people use vaporizers, a recent study at the University of Michigan found that for eighth, 10th and 12th graders, the various flavor options are more enticing.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, vaporizers — or e-cigarettes — are battery-powered devices generally designed to look like pens, often using a liquid containing nicotine in combination with a variety of flavors, glycerin and other ingredients to mimic a traditional smoking sensation.

Richard Miech, Institute for Social Research professor and lead author of the study, has previously conducted studies on adolescents and other drugs such as opioids. He said while the survey has traditionally asked students about gender and drugs, it now also asks about the role of government and the use of 50 different substances. Questions about e-cigarettes, examining exactly which substances were being vaped, were added in 2013 due to their increasing prevalence.

Miech said he expected to find most students vaped due to an addiction to the drug, given the perception of e-cigarettes as a device to deliver nicotine. Instead, he found that roughly 60 percent of students who had ever vaped reported vaping “just flavoring” without nicotine.

“The percentage that vaped non-nicotine, just flavoring, was the same pretty much in all the grades,” Miech said. “The percentage that vaped nicotine went up between eighth, 10th and 12th grade as you would expect. But that’s difficult to interpret, because you might be tempted to think as they get older, people start with vaping non-nicotine, and then by 12th grade, they’ve switched over to nicotine. But it could very well be … that by 12th grade, a new group of people come in that were smoking cigarettes or whatever, and they didn’t vape in eighth and 10th grade, but they started vaping in 12th grade.”

E-cigarettes have become exponentially more popular each year since their introduction to the market in 2003. As of 2015, 16 percent of high school students, and just over 5 percent of middle school students used e-cigarettes, according to the FDA.

SInce their introduction, there has been significant debate surrounding vaping over the balance between the potential benefits it could have on smoking cessation, versus the potential for negative health effects and the encouragement of behavior very similar to smoking. Additionally, researchers and policymakers have raised concerns about the regulation and sale of e-cigarettes.

This concern was amplified after the 2015 National Youth Tobacco Survey, conducted by the FDA, found that the use of e-cigarettes and hookah was increasing while the use of traditional cigarettes was decreasing. These results ultimately prompted the FDA to move to regulate e-cigarettes in the same way traditional cigarettes are regulated, instituting rules that went into effect last May.

The recent University study, which used data from the 2015 Monitoring the Future Survey — a nationally representative survey sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and administered by the University – found that no matter the flavor, it was the taste encouraging eighth, 10th and 12th graders to vape more so than the nicotine.

Joey Wylie, an employee of the Ann Arbor store Bongz & Thongz, which sells vaporizers, said he was surprised by the study results for a number of reasons, but particularly the age of the respondents.

"That's pretty young, first off," Wylie said. "For flavor, I can see that it would be popular for such young smokers. I don't know how many of them are really smoking because it's probably pretty difficult for them to get their hands on it for the most part."

Miech said for young people, a culture now exists surrounding vaping as a hobby.

“There seems to be this kind of youth culture that seems to enjoy vaping not so much to get a hit of nicotine, but more to do smoke tricks and be part of a crowd of some type,” he said.

Currently the consequences are of vaping non-nicotine vapor into the lungs are unknown due to a lack of long-term data on the topic. Miech said he believes it has to be less harmful than traditional cigarettes or e-cigarettes containing nicotine.

“Cigarette smoke has at least 100 known carcinogenic chemicals in it, whereas vaping is mostly propylene glycol, so it’s not a known carcinogen, which makes me think it would be much harder to establish the contents of nicotine-free vaping vapor as harmful,” Miech said.

Wylie said while he has been working at the shop, he has encountered mostly college freshmen, though upperclassmen vape as well. He added that he thinks that if people are going to smoke, vaping is better than traditional cigarettes due to the ingredients used.

"If they enjoy smoking, it's a safer alternative," he said.

Overall, when it comes to regulation, Miech said he believes the same strategies used for preventing smoking traditional cigarettes are not as effective for e-cigarettes and vaping.

“I think a more strategic and potentially fruitful line of attack for those who are interested in such things is to say, maybe vaping is a risk factor for future smoking, regardless of what it is they’re vaping,” he said. “Even if they are not vaping nicotine, it could be that when you start vaping, it teaches you how to smoke. Vaporizers could very well serve as a device that desensitizes people to the dangers of smoking.”