Middle and High School Students Use Tobacco Products Despite Attempts to Quit

Despite lower rates of smoking in 2021 in general, 2.55 million middle and high school students reported actively using a tobacco product. While this number is staggering, it is important to note that over 60 % of students who reported using a tobacco product also reported at least one attempt to quit in the previous 12 months. Prevention is the best way to protect youth from the harms of tobacco products, and stronger efforts are needed to fight the tobacco and vaping industries to stop exploiting children for financial gain. For youth addicted to nicotine, cessation programs specifically designed for them are needed to protect them from the life-long harms of first-, second- and thirdhand smoke.

March 10, 2022

CDC Newsroom 

The 2021 National Youth Tobacco Survey conducted among U.S. middle and high school students during the COVID-19 pandemic revealed that youth tobacco use remains a serious public health concern. About 2.55 million U.S. middle and high school students reported current (past 30-day) use of a tobacco product in 2021, according to new data published on March 11 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Because of the implementation of COVID-19 protocols across the country when the 2021 survey was conducted (January 18–May 21, 2021), it was administered online to allow eligible students to complete the survey at home, school, or somewhere else. While the authors of the study remain confident in the study results, the reporting of tobacco use might differ by the setting where the survey was completed. Therefore, these results cannot be compared with results from previous NYTS surveys that were primarily conducted on school campuses.

In collaboration with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analyzed data from the 2021 NYTS. Among middle and high school students who currently used tobacco products about 1 in 3 (860,000) used at least one type of combustible tobacco product, and about 3 in 10 (740,000) used two or more tobacco products.

As previously reported, e-cigarettes were the most common tobacco product currently used among middle and high school students (2.06 million) in 2021, followed by cigarettes (410,000), cigars (380,000), smokeless tobacco (240,000), hookahs (220,000), nicotine pouches (200,000), heated tobacco products (170,000), and pipe tobacco (80,000).

“Youth use of tobacco products is unsafe in any form – combustible, smokeless, or electronic,” said Karen Hacker, M.D., M.P.H., director of CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. “This report provides critical insights needed to combat this serious public health concern and help protect our nation’s youth from the harmful effects of tobacco.”

Disparities Persist Among Subgroups

Among middle and high school students combined, current use of any tobacco product was higher among students who identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (14.2%) than those who identified as heterosexual (7.9%) and those who were “not sure” about their sexual identity (5.5%); and higher among students who identified as transgender (18.9%) compared to those not transgender (8.2%) or not sure (9.1%).

Current use of any tobacco product was higher among students who had severe (14.2%), moderate (11.2%), or mild (9.6%) symptoms of psychological distress compared to those with no psychological distress (5.5%).

Additionally, among all race and ethnicity groups, non-Hispanic Black students reported the highest prevalence of current combustible tobacco product use (5.2%), and specifically cigar use (3.1%). While youth use of tobacco products in any form is unsafe, this result is concerning because death and disease from tobacco product use in the United States is primarily caused by combustible tobacco products.

Many factors influence youth tobacco product use

Multiple factors continue to promote tobacco product use and initiation among youth, including flavors, marketing, and misperceptions of harm. Among the approximately 2.55 million middle and high school students who currently used any tobacco product, most (about 8 in 10 or 1.95 million) reported using flavored tobacco product(s) in the past 30 days. 

Approximately 76% of students in 2021 reported exposure to tobacco product marketing through traditional media (e.g., newspapers or magazines), and approximately 74% of students who used social media had ever seen e-cigarette–related posts or content.

Among students who had ever used e-cigarettes, peer use and curiosity were the most cited reasons for first trying e-cigarettes in 2021. However, among students who currently used e-cigarettes, the most cited reasons for use were feelings of anxiety, stress, or depression and the “high or buzz” associated with nicotine use. Importantly, nicotine withdrawal is commonly accompanied by symptoms of anxiety and depression, and temporary relief of these symptoms through use of a nicotine-containing product might perpetuate continued nicotine use.

Among the approximately 2.55 million students who currently used any tobacco product, 65.3% reported that they were seriously thinking about quitting all tobacco products. In addition, 60.2% of students who currently used tobacco products reported that they stopped using all tobacco products for 1 or more days during the past 12 months because they were trying to quit.

“The 2021 NYTS findings include important new information about youth tobacco use behaviors and associated factors that will help the FDA evaluate, design, and implement our tobacco regulatory and educational programs,” said Mitch Zeller, J.D., Director of FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products. “It’s revealing that about two-thirds of current youth users expressed a desire to quit tobacco products and that three-quarters of youth reported having seen or heard a tobacco prevention ad. But the 2021 use data are still concerning and will be valuable for policymakers and educators committed to protecting the next generation from tobacco-related disease and death.”

What more can be done about youth tobacco product use?

Tobacco product use remains the leading cause of preventable disease, disability, and death in the United States. Nearly all tobacco use begins during youth and young adulthood. Nicotine–the addictive drug found in tobacco products–can harm adolescent brain development, which continues into the early to mid-20s. Parents, educators, youth advocates, and health care providers can help protect youth from the harms of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, and can support and encourage youth to quit.

Strategies to reduce tobacco product use and initiation among all youth include: increasing prices of tobacco products; establishing comprehensive clean indoor air policies that denormalize tobacco use and protect persons from exposure to secondhand smoke and e-cigarette aerosol; sustaining media campaigns that warn about the dangers of tobacco product use; reducing youth access to tobacco products, including enforcement of the federal policy against retailers who violate the law; and restricting the sales of flavored e-cigarettes.

To learn more about quitting tobacco product use and preventing youth from using tobacco products, visit www.betobaccofree.gov and FDA’s “The Real Cost” campaign.

Note: Content was edited for style and length.

Click here to read the research study.

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