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October 31, 2016

What and Why Are Adolescents Vaping?

Vaping InfographicBy: Youth and Social Issues Program

Vaping, or using electronic vaporizers like e-cigarettes, has gained recent popularity among adolescents worldwide. In the US, e-cigarette smoking by high school students increased nine-fold from 2011 to 2014. Vaporizers deliver an inhalable aerosol that can contain flavors and/or nicotine or marijuana; ingredients are often not clearly specified. Advertising dollars for vaping increased 2000% over three years, and more than 7000 vaporizer flavors exist today. “My favorite flavor is gummy bears,” said one 8th grader interviewed on NPR.

Parents, researchers, and policy makers are concerned about the impact of vaporizer use on adolescent health and development. Nicotine can be especially detrimental and addictive for the developing adolescent brain. Can vaping reverse the trends in reduced nicotine use among young people by reintroducing nicotine in novel delivery systems or habituating teens to smoking? To address such concerns, we first need to understand what substances adolescents are vaping and why vaping is so appealing. SRC research professors offer two relevant papers based on nationally representative data from the Monitoring the Future study (MTF).

First, a recent paper in Tobacco Control led by Richard Miech reports on what 8th, 10th, and 12th graders say they vaped when they last used a vaporizer. Surprisingly, 65-66% said they used “just flavoring.” This response was consistent across grades and demographic groups (race/ethnicity, gender, and parental education). Nicotine came in a distant second at about 20% among 12th and 10th graders and 13% among 8th graders. Using marijuana in vaporizers was reported by about 6% in each grade among students who had ever used a vaporizer.

Second, a recent study in Drug and Alcohol Dependence led by Megan Patrick, also based on MTF adolescent data, explored why teens say they vape. Experimenting (53%) and taste (37%) were the primary reasons, followed by boredom (24%), to have a good time (22%), to relax (22%), because it looks cool (14%), and to feel good or get high (8%). Vaping to quit regular cigarettes (7%) and because regular cigarettes are not permitted (6%), reasons commonly given by adults, were not common for teens. Even among teens who have smoked regular cigarettes, cigarette-related reasons for vaping were among the least common. Reasons differed little across grades, suggesting that reasons were similar across ages 13 to 18.

These studies indicate that adolescents use vaporizers in ways and for reasons that may be different from adults. Primary prevention programs aimed at reducing nicotine use, strategic because they occur before nicotine addiction sets in, may benefit from targeting young vapers.


Miech, R. A., Patrick, M. E., O’Malley, P. M., & Johnston, L. D. (2016). What are kids vaping? Results from a national survey of U.S. adolescents. Tobacco Control. doi: 10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2016-053014.

Patrick, M. E., Miech, R. A., Carlier, C., O‘Malley, P. M., Johnston, L. D., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2016). Self-reported reasons for vaping among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders in the US: Nationally-representative results. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 165, 275-278. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2016.05.017.