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Youth Vaping Not As Common As We've Been Told

One thing's for sure: youths shouldn't be vaping. While there may be some discussion of the appropriate legal age for tobacco use, every right-thinking person wants to keep tobacco products out of the hands of youths. As we all know from being teenagers ourselves, youths can be pretty soft-headed sometimes, particularly when it comes to executive decision-making and our approach to pleasure.

The major selling point advocates of flavor bans have used to justify their use of emergency powers is that there is an epidemic of youth vaping, a far-reaching and sudden outbreak of teens who previously weren't using tobacco products, and who have been turned into mindless addict zombies by the Power of Flavor. A new study, released this week by the NYU School of Global Public Health suggests that this narrative may be crucially-flawed in more than one way.

An artistic representation of the National Youth Tobacco Survey

The primary source of information about youth vaping comes from the often-misunderstood, often-mis-cited National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS), but the NYU study, published this month in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research, contradicts or clarifies information from the NYTS, and their findings may suggest a review of the data is in order. That review should have a major effect on how we approach the question of youth vaping, and whether emergency flavor bans would even be effective in preventing youth vaping.

The first finding is a cautionary one: 86 percent of youth don't vape. That may seem encouraging, but we have to remember our goal should be 100 percent of youth not vaping. That's the goal of all AEMSA members, and certainly it's the goal of AEMSA co-founder Mister-E-Liquid. We want to make sure that the people who choose to vape are adults capable of making that decision for themselves. So knowing that only 14 percent of youth are vaping is encouraging inasmuch as the number isn't higher, but it should be lower still.

A burning cigarette. I do not miss these.

However, the second finding is absolutely critical. The fear taught to us by anti-vaping advocates is that vaping is introducing a whole new generation of children to tobacco, teens who otherwise would never have touched a nicotine product. But the NYU study found something quite different: that the vast majority of youth vapers were already smokers. This is a critical finding, and something that must be considered strongly before actions are taken that limit the freedoms of adult vapers.

More specifically, the NYU study shows that as many as 88.9 percent of youth vapers use or have used other tobacco products! That shows that the myth of "flavors leading children to nicotine" is critically and fatally flawed. If only 14 percent of youths are vaping, and only 11 percent of those start with vaping, it's impossible to view flavors as being the driving force behind attracting youths to vaping.

A collection of different flavored vape juice bottles.

This is important not simply because adults want to vape flavors (they're delicious), or because vape juice manufacturers want to sell flavors (they're profitable), but because if we want to solve the problem of youth vaping, we have to understand its root causes. This study seems to indicate that youth vaping is made up almost entirely of youths who would have used tobacco products anyway. That's not to say that vaping is healthier or safer than smoking or chewing tobacco, but it does mean that our solution must be targeted not to vaping (which simply drives them back to cigarettes), but to solving the root causes that drive youths to nicotine in the first place.

That solution may be more complicated than simply "ban all the flavors", but that's a truth we're simply going to have to accept if we want to solve the problem. It would be wonderful if we could wave one wand and solve the entire problem. But in the real world, problems and their solutions are messy and complex. If we want to solve the complex problem of youth nicotine use, we're going to need a complex solution.

Where do we start, then? It's all well and good to say where we don't start, but that's a critic's solution. Where do we start? And the answer to that question is, as ever: by gathering data, and using that data to inform and empower people to make informed decisions. For people who aren't yet equipped to make informed decisions, it means using the law to protect those people until they can. So: research, education, access control. That's where we start, not with flavor bans.

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