Smoking by California high school students is at such a low level that state-funded researchers consider it “negligible,” according to recently released survey results from last year. The state’s youth vaping rate is also low, with less than half as many students using e-cigarettes than in the country as a whole.
Just 1.2% of California’s high school students smoked cigarettes in the past 30 days—a 40% decrease over the already low 2.0% from the last survey two years earlier. Among that same age group, 8.2% vaped in the past 30 days—down from 10.9%. Marijuana use, however, was unchanged at 15%.
The results were part of the 2019-20 California Student Tobacco Survey, a statewide survey of 8th, 10th and 12th grade students conducted every two years and funded by the California Department of Public Health’s Tobacco Control Program. The research team, from the University of California-San Diego, was led by principal investigator Shu-Hong Zhu, Ph.D.
Despite being cut slightly short by COVID-19 school closings in March 2020, the survey was still more extensive than previous efforts. More than 162,000 students from 358 randomly selected school participated—an increase over previous years’ surveys. The survey was given online during the school day between September 2019 and March 2020.
Among the high school students who vaped, fewer than one in four vaped on 20 or more days a month—or 1.99% of the entire age group. That is yet more evidence that the vast majority of teenage vaping is experimental—more a fad than an “epidemic of addiction,” as youth vaping is often described.
The results indicate that just a handful of students in an average California high school are daily vapers. That paints a much different picture than the moral panic-driven image of school bathrooms packed with kids desperate to get nicotine between classes.
The percentage of high school students who smoked on 20 or more days a month was just 0.28%, or fewer than one in 350 10th and 12th grade students. In many schools that would mean just one or two students in the entire school smoke regularly.
The results show that fewer California high school students vape than their peers in the country as a whole. Results from the CDC’s 2020 National Youth Tobacco Survey indicated more than twice as many high school students nationally—19.6% versus California’s 8.2%—tried a vape in the past 30 days. The number of students nationwide who vaped daily or almost daily was also about twice as high as California’s (4.4% to 1.99%).
California’s high school students used marijuana at almost double the rate they vaped nicotine, with 15% consuming cannabis in the past 30 days. In fact, the authors note that the previous survey’s vaping results may have been inflated because questions about cannabis and nicotine vaping weren’t properly delineated.
It seems likely that the 29% national decline in past-30-day vaping between 2019 and 2020—from 27.5% to 19.6%—may also be partly explained by poor measurement of cannabis vaping on the 2019 NYTS. Cheap prefilled THC oil cartridges and vape pens exploded in both legal and illegal cannabis markets across the country between 2018 and 2019, and then declined as word spread about the “EVALI” outbreak caused by illicit THC carts diluted with vitamin E acetate.
The California survey authors go into great (and pointless) detail about flavored vaping and tobacco use, emphasizing that 96.2% of high school vapers used flavored products. That number is meaningless, since virtually all commercially available vaping products are flavored.
The flavors California youth prefer to vape are the same ones that adult ex-smokers also like best, with 63.9% of high school students preferring fruit flavors. A 2016 survey of more than 70,000 adult vapers found fruit flavors were the overwhelming favorite among that group too.