By Theresa Pablos, DrBicuspid.com associate editor

June 14, 2018 -- The number of U.S. middle and high school students who use tobacco products has significantly dropped since 2011, according to new data from the U.S. government. However, more than 3 million students still regularly use electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) and other tobacco products.

The new statistics come from the 2017 National Youth Tobacco Survey, a joint effort from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to track youth tobacco use over time. The 2017 data were published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (June 8, 2018).

While FDA and CDC leadership are encouraged by the decline in overall use, they still believe more can be done to prevent tobacco use in this population.

"Ultimately, we need to make every effort to prevent youth tobacco use," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, stated in a press release. "This responsibility falls on all of us, including the companies that develop and market these products, the retailers selling them, and the online venues that help to fuel the teen popularity of, and access to, these products."

Millions of youth use tobacco products

The FDA and CDC have partnered to conduct the National Youth Tobacco Survey for more than a decade. It is the only nationally representative survey focused exclusively on tobacco use among middle and high school tobacco students, according to the FDA.

Overall tobacco use among U.S. youths is down, according to the new survey data. In 2017, about 3.6 million middle and high school students said they had used a tobacco product in the past 30 days, down from 4.5 million students in 2011.

Youth tobacco use, 2017

E-cigarettes were once again the most commonly used tobacco product by both middle and high school students. These cigarettes have been the most popular tobacco product since 2014.

"These figures are particularly concerning because youth exposure to nicotine -- whether it comes from a cigarette or an e-cigarette -- affects the developing brain and may rewire it to be more susceptible to nicotine addiction in the future," Dr. Gottlieb stated. "While there was no change in e-cigarette use from 2016 to 2017 among high school-aged teens, it's too soon to tell whether this represents a leveling off, following a steep decline from 2015 to 2016."

Reasons for e-cigarette use and prevention efforts

About 40% of youth said they used e-cigarettes because a friend or family member used them, according to newly available data from the 2016 National Youth Tobacco Survey. Furthermore, about 30% of users said they used e-cigarettes because of the availability of flavors, such as mint, candy, fruit, or chocolate, and 17% believed that they were less harmful than other forms of tobacco.

Despite declines in overall tobacco use, Dr. Gottlieb and CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, both expressed concern with the number of youth using e-cigarettes and other tobacco products. They attributed the overall decline to federal, state, and local efforts, including the FDA's stricter stance on e-cigarette regulation and upcoming plan to help prevent youth from accessing e-cigarettes. However, both also believe that more can and should be done to limit e-cigarette use among middle and high school youth.

"Despite promising declines in tobacco use, far too many young people continue to use tobacco products, including e-cigarettes," Dr. Redfield stated in a press release. "Comprehensive, sustained strategies can help prevent and reduce tobacco use and protect our nation's youth from this preventable health risk."


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