Marijuana and vaping are more popular than tobacco cigarettes among U.S. teens, but in Ky. use of the three are about equal

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

More American teenagers are using marijuana and vaping than are smoking cigarettes, but Kentucky teens use the three products about equally, according to national and state surveys of them.

The national "Monitoring the Future" survey found that in 2017, 23.9 percent of high-school seniors reported using marijuana in the 30 days before the survey, while 9.7 percent reported smoking tobacco during that period. The survey found that 16.6 percent had used electronic cigarettes, which can be vaped with marijuana products.

Among sophomores across the nation, 15.2 percent reported using marijuana, 13.1 percent vaping and 5 percent tobacco cigarettes. Among eighth-graders, 5.5 percent reported using marijuana, 6.6 percent vaping and 1.9 percent tobacco.

The MTF survey, which has tracked substance-use trends among students for 43 years, is conducted annually by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan and is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The latest survey included about 44,000 students in 360 public and private schools.

Figures in parentheses give the possible range of results within margin of error.
The survey doesn't produce state-by-state data, but the Kentucky Youth Risk Behavior Survey in 2017 found that Kentucky's high-school students used the three products at about the same rate.

The state survey found that 14.3 percent of Kentucky's high-school students reported smoking tobacco cigarettes, 14.1 percent vaping and 15.8 percent using marijuana in the 30 days prior to the survey. The differences in the numbers are not large enough to be statistically significant.

The Kentucky results among the three grades were also close. Among eighth graders, 5.9 percent reported vaping and 4.3 percent of them reported smoking tobacco cigarettes in the 30 days before being surveyed. On marijuana, the survey didn't specify a time period, but only asked if they had ever used marijuana; 11.9 percent said they had.


Both surveys found the percentage of students who used electronic cigarettes remained the same since the previous poll. For the first time, the national survey asked what substances the students thought they were vaping.

NIH graphic
It found that during the past year, about one in 10 seniors said they thought they had vaped marijuana, as had 8 percent of 10th graders and 3 percent of 8th graders.

About one in 20 of the seniors said they thought they had vaped nicotine in the past year, as had 16 percent and 8 percent of 10th and 8th graders, respectively.

During the last time they vaped, 74.8 percent of eighth graders, 59.2 percent of sophomores and 51.8 percent of seniors said they thought they had used "just flavoring."  The University of Michigan news release notes that it is possible that these students are getting nicotine, but are not aware of it.

"These findings emphasize that vaping has progressed well beyond a cigarette alternative," principal researcher Richard Miech said in the release. "Vaping has become a new delivery device for a number of substances, and this number will likely increase in the years to come."


The release said the national survey found "the first significant increase in seven years" in marijuana use, 1.3 percent. The Kentucky rate remained stable.

The national survey found 13.5 percent of eighth graders had ever used marijuana; in Kentucky the figure was 11.9 percent. Among U.S. 10th graders, the figure was 30.7 percent; among those in Kentucky, it was 32.5 percent. Among seniors, it was 45 percent nationwide and 46.5 percent in Kentucky.

The national survey also found that the daily use of marijuana has become "as, or more, popular" among teens as daily smoking of tobacco cigarettes. Among high-school seniors, 5.9 percent said they used marijuana daily; 4.2 percent said they were daily cigarette smokers. The Kentucky survey didn't measure daily marijuana use, but found that 8.9 percent of the state's seniors are daily tobacco smokers.

The national increase in marijuana use “has been expected by many,” Miech said. “Historically, marijuana use has gone up as adolescents see less risk of harm in using it. We’ve found that the risk adolescents see in marijuana use has been steadily going down for years to the point that it is now at the lowest level we’ve seen in four decades.”

In 1991, 41 percent of seniors said they saw "great risk" in occasionally smoking marijuana; in 2017, only 14 percent said that.

The biennial Kentucky Incentives for Prevention Survey, which also asks students about substance use but also their perceptions of it, found that the perception of "great risk" for occasional marijuana use was higher in Kentucky than nationally, but is also dropping: 43.1 percent of Kentucky high-school seniors said smoking marijuana once or twice a week posed "moderate" or "great risk," down greatly from 75.5 percent in 2004.

The national survey found that high-school seniors in states allowing the medical use of marijuana are more likely to have vaped marijuana and consumed marijuana edibles than in states without such laws. For example, in states with medical-marijuana laws, 16.7 percent of seniors said they had consumed marijuana edibles, while only 8.3 percent had done so in states without such laws.

Kentucky legislators who chair the House and Senate health committees indicated on the Dec. 18 "Kentucky Tonight" on KET that medical marijuana will be discussed more than before in the upcoming legislative session. They also said more action will be taken against the opioid epidemic.


The national survey's best news was the low levels of opioid use by youth, noting that the misuse of prescription drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin and heroin are at record low levels among both middle- and high- school students.

The national survey found that 4.2 percent of high-school seniors in this year's survey reported misusing "narcotics other than heroin" in the past year, compared to 9.5 percent in 2004, the peak year of opioid misuse in the survey. The survey only asks this question of seniors.

The percentages of high-school and middle-school students misusing prescription drugs has also dropped in Kentucky, but remain higher than the national rates.

In 2017, 12.6 percent of Kentucky seniors said they had taken "pain medicine without a doctor's prescription or differently than how a doctor told them to use it," compared to 2011 (the first year the state survey asked this question), when the rate was 20.9 percent.

This rate also dropped for Kentucky's 10th graders, to 10.8 percent in 2017 from 16.3 percent in 2011. Among eighth graders, it has ranged from as low as 5.3 percent in 2017 to as high as 11.2 percent in 2013.

The Michigan researchers say they hope that the low opioid-misuse rates will follow U.S. teens into adulthood, since it is well established that the risk of addiction increases when drug use begins during adolescence or earlier.


Nationally and in Kentucky, alcohol use has been trending down, but the declines have slowed.

For example, this year's national measure of binge drinking (five or more drinks on a single occasion in the past 30 days) results didn't show much difference from last year, with 16.6 percent of high-school seniors reporting binge drinking in the previous two weeks; 9.8 percent of 10th graders and 3.7 percent of 8th graders.

The state survey found 23.8 percent of seniors and 11.2 percent of sophomores reported binge drinking. The survey did not ask eighth graders this question.

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