As the year winds down, legislators are eagerly plotting various legislation they plan to introduce in the new year. Given the continued alarmism about an imaginary youth vaping epidemic, many will introduce bills that tax and/or ban the sales of vape products to adults. While addressing youth vaping is laudable, lawmakers remain ill-informed of the actual youth vaping numbers for their respective states. And they can’t even access that information because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to delay publishing the results from the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS).
Every other year, public schools participate in the YRBS, which surveys youth on various behaviors from physical activities and dietary habits to substance use and mental health. This data provides state-specific data on young people, which helps inform lawmakers considering policies that impact adults.
In previous years, the CDC has published the results in the summer of the following year. For example, during the middle of the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2019 YRBS results were available in August. Yet, as of early December, the CDC has not released the 2021 survey results. This is quite odd considering that some states, including Montana, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin have released their own state’s YRBS results.
It’s even odder considering that, since 2019, billionaire e-cigarette opponent Michael Bloomberg has donated $10.5 million to the CDC Foundation for the “monitoring of e-cigarette use among youth,” including “adding more nuanced, key indicators to state-based youth surveillance systems,” such as the YRBS. You’d think, given this influx of funding, the agency would be able to release this information on time.
Yet, it isn’t just the delays; there are missing questions. According to the results from states that have published their 2021 YRBS, the questions relating to youth e-cigarette use have been omitted. Consider the 2019 Montana YRBS. In that survey, students were asked what was “the main reason [they] have used electronic vapor products” and given a list of responses to choose from, including because friends and family members had used them, because they are less harmful and/or cheaper than cigarettes, because of flavors, and “other.” That question resulted in only 7% of high schoolers reporting using e-cigarettes because of flavors — an inconveniently low number for those eager to ban flavors. Fast forward to the 2021 YRBS, and the question was changed from the reasons why they had used an e-cigarette to what flavor of e-cigarette they are using, thereby getting rid of that nuisance of a low percentage vaping for the flavor. While the latter question offers useful information, policymakers should want to understand why young people try and use e-cigarettes in the first place.
While the CDC has delayed publishing additional details from the 2022 National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS), such as the survey answers showing why kids vape, data from last year’s survey shows flavors are not the reason kids are vaping. For example, in 2021, among middle and high school students that were currently using e-cigarettes, nearly half (43.4%) cited using them because they were feeling “anxious, stressed [and/or] depressed.” Conversely, only 13.2% of current youth e-cigarette users cited using them because of flavors. Among kids who had tried e-cigarettes, 57.8% cited trying them because a friend used them, 47.6% cited curiosity, and only 13.5% had tried e-cigarettes because of flavors.
And the 2021 Wisconsin YRBS found that more than half (52.2%) of high school students reported having “had significant problems with feeling very anxious, nervous, tense, scared, or like something bad was going to happen.” And while current e-cigarette use among Wisconsin high school students has decreased by 28.6% between 2019 and 2021, the percentage of high schoolers that felt “sad or hopeless” for “almost every day for [two] or more weeks” increased by 18.2% to 33.7% of high schoolers.
Given this trend, it is long overdue for the CDC to release the 2021 YRBS results for all states that participated. It’s also time for the agency to remember its mission to protect people from health threats — not stoking fears and confusing the public for billionaire activists.
As lawmakers prepare for 2023 sessions, they must be aware that the CDC is hiding data in order to serve Bloomberg’s anti-vaping activism. The trend is clear: youth vaping is declining, and youth cigarette use is essentially non-existent. That is a public health victory that public health institutions are unwilling to recognize and refuse to celebrate, to the detriment of millions of kids suffering from the real public health crisis facing young people today — mental illness.