The Virginia Department of Health recently published the results of the Commonwealth’s 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). While there is welcoming news that youth vaping has declined since peaking in 2019, and high school use of traditional tobacco products is down, there has been an increase in combustible cigarette use among middle school students in the Old Dominion.

According to the YRBS, among high school students in 2021, 2.8% reported current use of combustible cigarettes, defined as having used a product on at least one occasion in the 30 days prior to the survey. Less than 1% reported frequent (20 days or more) and/or daily use. These are some of the lowest rates recorded among high schoolers in Virginia and between 2011 and 2021, current combustible cigarette use declined by over 81%.

Youth use of other tobacco products declined as well. In 2021, only 1.8% of Virginia high schoolers reported current smokeless tobacco use, and 2.8% reported current cigar use.

Vaping among Virginia high school students has declined since peaking in 2019. In 2021, 14.3% reported current e-cigarette use, and 3.5% reported using e-cigarettes daily. Between 2019 and 2021, current vaping among high school students decreased by 28%, while daily use of e-cigarettes decreased by 16.7%.

This is good news among Virginia high school students, but there is an alarming trend among middle school students.

In 2021, 3.1% of middle schoolers reported currently using combustible cigarettes, which is a 16.3% increase from 2019’s 1.9%. Further, daily use has exploded by 400%, from 0.1% in 2019 to 0.5% in 2021.

Meanwhile, vaping has declined significantly. In 2021, 9.2% of Virginia middle schoolers reported ever trying an e-cigarette, and 4.5% reported current use. Between 2019 and 2021, ever-use and current use declined by 38.3% and 26.2%, respectively.

The declines in youth vaping are welcome, but in the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced legislation that would change the current tax on liquid nicotine at $0.066/mL, to a new tax that would impose the current tax rate on closed vapor product systems and include a new 20% wholesale tax on open vapor systems.

Such legislation is a slam in the face to the adults who have used these products to quit smoking and policymakers should refrain from policies that would deter adults from switching to safer alternatives. Rather, lawmakers should look at ways to use monies from existing tobacco and vapor excise taxes to address these concerning increases in smoking among middle schoolers. 

Lindsey Stroud is a Visiting Fellow at Independent Women’s Forum, Director of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance’s Consumer Center, and a board member with the American Vapor Manufacturers Association.