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Most teens vape for a surprising reason, study finds

Research suggests that middle and high school students who vape may not be doing it for the nicotine.

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Bottles of various flavors of vapor solution for use in e-cigarettes are on display at a shop in Sacramento, Calif., on July 16. Research released Thursday suggests that most teens aren't vaping nicotine at all, but using sweet and fruity flavors like strawberry, chocolate cake, and bubble gum.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

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Public health officials have sounded the alarm that electronic cigarettes have become a new gateway to tobacco for many teens. The theory goes that teens who "vape" can become addicted to nicotine and transition to traditional cigarettes.

Many US teens who vape may not actually be inhaling nicotine at all, however: They say they prefer sweet vaping solutions that don't contain any nicotine, according to new research.

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Researchers from the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan found that 65 to 66 percent of vaping teens in 8th, 10th, and 12th grade last used a vape for “just flavoring” reasons – more than all other reasons combined.

“These results challenge the common assumption that all vaporiser users inhale nicotine,” write the researchers. In addition, these results moderate frequent claims of a “nicotine epidemic” among teens, and “suggest the importance of developing different rationales” for regulating vaping devices. 

Because the research relies upon self-reported data provided by students in the annual Monitoring the Future survey, it is unclear whether these teens are consistently selecting nicotine-free vape solutions, or whether some may be unaware that their preferred solution contains nicotine. The vaping industry offers flavored fluids in a wide range of nicotine concentrations.

With the recent uptick in vaping and e-cigarette use among US teens, government agencies and independent researchers have been searching for effective mitigation strategies. And knowing that US minors primarily vape for flavor, rather than nicotine, can help target these efforts.

“Messages aimed at curbing vaporiser and e-cigarette use among young people may not be successful if they focus on the dangers of nicotine, given that most teens who vape do not believe they are using nicotine,” explains the study’s press release

But that’s not to say that flavor-motivated vaping is harmless. Some public health officials have raised concerns about the flavoring added to vape solutions, similar to questions about artificial flavors used in microwave popcorn.

What's more, a study published in June found that teenagers who try electronic cigarettes are six times more likely to try regular cigarettes, compared with teens who have not tried e-cigarettes.

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According to FDA statistics, e-cigarette use rose from 1.5 percent among high school students in 2011 to 16 percent in 2015, making them the most commonly used tobacco product among youth. Of current youth e-cigarette users, 81 percent cited “the availability of appealing flavors” as the primary reason for use. 

In May, the FDA added to previous regulations by banning electronic cigarette sales to anyone in the US under the age of 18. In addition, all purchasers will now need to show a photo ID to buy the products, and retailers are prohibited from handing out free samples.

“We have more to do to help protect Americans from the dangers of tobacco and nicotine, especially our youth,” Sylvia Burwell, the secretary of the Department of Human Health and Services, said in a May press release. “As cigarette smoking among those under 18 has fallen, the use of other nicotine products, including e-cigarettes, has taken a drastic leap.” 

These restrictions went into effect earlier this month.

“With this FDA action, the US will go further toward raising a generation of Americans free of these addictive products,” the Monitor’s Editorial Board wrote in May. “But first it must curb the commercial initiation of these new nicotine-delivery devices to youth.”