There’s good news for policymakers in the Sooner State. According to data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health, among high schoolers, vaping seems to have peaked in 2019 and has declined between then and 2019, while the use of traditional tobacco products is at record lows.
According to the Oklahoma Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), in 2021, among Oklahoma high school students, 44.2% reported ever-trying vapor products, while 21.7% reported currently using vapor products, defined as having used the product on at least one occasion in the 30 days prior to the survey. Similar to national data, youth vaping seems to have peaked in Oklahoma in 2019 when 57.7% of students reported ever using e-cigarettes and 27.8% were then currently using them. Between 2019 and 2021, the ever-use of e-cigarettes declined by 23.4%, while current use declined by 21.9%.
The even better news is that the introduction of electronic cigarettes has not led to an uptick in youth use of traditional tobacco products in Oklahoma.
In 2021, 22.3% of Oklahoma high schoolers reported ever trying combustible cigarettes, while 4% reported currently smoking. These are the lowest levels ever recorded in the state’s YRBS reports. In 2003 (the earliest year with available data), more than three-fifths (64.1%) of high schoolers in the Sooner State had tried cigarettes and more than one-fourth (26.5%) were then-currently smoking. Between 2003 and 2021, ever use of cigarettes decreased by 63.5%, while current use decreased by 84.9%.
Further, there has not been an uptick in other tobacco product use. In 2021, 2.6% of Oklahoma high school students reported currently using smokeless tobacco. This was a 71.7% decline from 2017 (the earliest year with available data) when 9.2% of high schoolers reported past-month use of smokeless tobacco. And, in 2021, only 2.3% of high schoolers in the Sooner State reported current cigar use, which was an 86.8% decline from 2003 nearly one-fifth (17.4%) were then-currently using e-cigarettes.
These declines in youth vaping and traditional tobacco use are welcome news and further evidence that there is no youth vaping epidemic, as youth vaping is declining. In fact, Dr. Brian King, head of the Center for Tobacco Products at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration stated in a February 2023 webinar that the agency “has not used that [youth vaping epidemic] terminology for the most recent estimates of youth use.”
Unfortunately, while vaping is down, a mental health crisis among Oklahoma’s (and the nation’s) youth is growing. While not directly related to tobacco use, data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Youth Tobacco Survey, indicate that youth use e-cigarettes to self-medicate. In fact, according to the 2021 NYTS, among U.S. middle and high school students that were currently using e-cigarettes, 43.4% cited using them because they had felt anxious, stressed, and/or depressed.
According to the 2021 YRBS, 43.8% of Oklahoma high schoolers reported feeling so sad or hopeless every day for two weeks in a row that they quit doing their usual activities. This was a 13.8% increase from 2019, but it is a whopping 61.6% increase from 2003, when only 27.1% reported such feelings. Further, according to data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the percentage of Oklahoma youth aged three to 17 years old that had been diagnosed with anxiety and/or depression by a medical professional increased by 16.2% between 2016 and 2020.
Policymakers in the Sooner State should embrace these declines and avoid policies that may hinder adult access to alternatives to smoking. While addressing youth use of age-restricted products is laudable, the overemphasis on youth vaping seems to have ignored a growing mental health epidemic among Oklahoma (and U.S.) youth.
Lindsey Stroud is a Visiting Fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, Director of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance’s Consumer Center, and a board member with the American Vapor Manufacturers Association.