It’s an electronic cigarette maker’s dream, but a public health nightmare: The confluence of social isolation and anxiety resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to make recent progress against e-cigarette use among teens go up in smoke.
“Stress and worsening mental health issues are well-known predisposing factors for smoking, both in quantity and frequency and in relapse,” said, clinical professor of pediatrics at New York University Winthrop Hospital, Mineola, during a webinar on e-cigarettes and vaping with asthma in the time of COVID-19, hosted by the .
Prior to the pandemic, public health experts appeared to be making inroads into curbing e-cigarette use, according to results of the, a cross-sectional school-based survey of students from grades 6 to 12.
“In 2020, approximately 1 in 5 high school students and 1 in 20 middle school students currently used e-cigarettes. By comparison, in 2019, 27.5% of high school students (4.11 million) and 10.5% of middle school students (1.24 million) reported current e-cigarette use,” wrote Brian A. King, PhD, MPH, and colleagues, in an
“We definitely believe that there was a real decline that occurred up until March. Those data from the National Youth Tobacco Survey were collected prior to youth leaving school settings and prior to the implementation of social distancing and other measures,” said Dr. King, deputy director for research translation in the Office on Smoking and Health within the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“That said, the jury’s still out on what’s going to happen with youth use during the coming year, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic” he said in an interview.
Flavor of the moment
Even though the data through March 2020 showed a distinct decline in e-cigarette use, Dr. King and colleagues found that 3.6 million U.S. adolescents still currently used e-cigarettes in 2020; among current users, more than 80% reported using flavored e-cigarettes.
Dr. Cataletto said in an interview that the 2020 National Youth Tobacco Survey continues to report widespread use of flavored e-cigarettes among young smokers despite Food and Drug Administration admonitions to manufacturers and retailers to remove unauthorized e-cigarettes from the market.
On Jan. 2, 2020, the FDA reported a finalized enforcement policy directed against “unauthorized flavored cartridge-based e-cigarettes that appeal to children, including fruit and mint.”
But as Dr. King and other investigators also mentioned in a separate analysis of e-cigarette unit sales, that enforcement policy applies only to prefilled cartridge e-cigarette products, such as those made by JUUL, and that while sales of mint- or fruit-flavored products of this type declined from September 2014 to May 2020, there was an increase in the sale of disposable e-cigarettes with flavors other than menthol or tobacco.
Dr. Cataletto pointed out that this vaping trend has coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that, on March 13, 2020, just 2 days after the World Health Organization declared that spread of COVID-19 was officially a pandemic, 16 states closed schools, leaving millions of middle school– and high school–age children at loose ends. She said: “This raised a number of concerns. Would students who used e-cigarettes be at increased risk of COVID-19? Would e-cigarette use increase again due to the social isolation and anxiety as predicted for tobacco smokers? How would access and availability impact e-cigarette use?
“It’s possible that use may go down, because youth may have less access to their typical social sources or other manners in which they obtain the product.” Dr. King said. “Alternatively, youth may have more disposable time on their hands and may be open to other sources of access to these products, and so use could increase.”
There is evidence to suggest that the latter scenario may be true, according to investigators who surveyed more than 1,000 Canadian adolescents about alcohol use, binge drinking, cannabis use, and vaping in the 3 weeks directly before and after social distancing measures took effect.
The investigators found that the frequency of both alcohol and cannabis use increased during social isolation, and that, although about half of respondents reported solitary substance use, 32% reported using substances with peers via technology, and 24% reported using substances face to face, despite social distancing mandates,Tara M. Dumas, PhD, from Huron University College, London, Ont.
“These authors suggest that teens who feared loss of friendships during quarantine might be more willing to engage in risky behaviors such as face to face substance use to maintain social status, while solitary substance use was related to both COVID19 fears and depressive symptomatology,” Dr. Cataletto said.