The Vermont Department of Health recently published the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) results. The biennial survey, in coordination with the Centers for Disease Control, tracks high school students’ behavior from diet and physical activity to mental health and well-being and substance use. 

There’s welcome news for policymakers who have been attempting to thwart youth tobacco and vapor product use as the percentage of Vermont youth using traditional tobacco products is at record lows, while youth use of electronic cigarettes or vapor products has declined from peaking in 2019.

In 2021, among Vermont high schoolers, 5.4% reported currently using combustible cigarettes. Current use is defined as having used the product on at least one occasion in the 30 days prior. This is a 21.7% decrease from 2019’s rates and a whopping 83.9% decline from 1993 when more than one-third (33.5%) of Vermont high schoolers were currently smoking.

Youth use of other tobacco products is at record lows. In 2021, only 3% of Vermont high school students reported currently using cigars, which was a 48.3% decrease from 2019’s 5.8%. This is also a 79.5% decline from 1999 when the YRBS first asked about cigar use and 14.6% of high schoolers were currently smoking cigars.

In 2021, only 2.8% of high schoolers were currently using smokeless tobacco products, which was a 20% decrease from 2019 and a 45.2% decline from 2017 when 5.2% of students were currently using smokeless tobacco.

As youth use of traditional tobacco products continues to decline, lawmakers have sought to address youth use of vapor products, which increased in Vermont (and nationwide) between 2017 and 2019. Fortunately, in Vermont (and nationwide), youth e-cigarette use has significantly declined between 2019 and 2021.

In 2021, 33.3% of Vermont high school students reported ever trying an e-cigarette, while 16.1% were currently using e-cigarettes. Between 2019 and 2021, the percentage of youth reporting having ever-trying an e-cigarette declined by 33.1%, and current use declined by 39%.

Unlike many other states, the Vermont YRBS offers insight into the reasons why youth are using e-cigarettes. It is of the utmost importance that lawmakers understand the true reasons youth use e-cigarettes (or any age-restricted product) as they determine policies that could hinder adult access while not addressing youth use.

According to the 2021 Vermont YRBS, less than one-fifth (18%) of high schoolers reported ever trying a flavored tobacco product (including menthol cigarettes and/or flavored vapes). Among high school students who were currently using e-cigarettes, the most cited reasons were to get a high/buzz from nicotine (32%) or because they were feeling anxious and/or stressed (32%). Only 3% of students reported currently using e-cigarettes because they were available in flavors. This is similar to national survey data which found in 2021, among U.S. middle and high school students who were currently vaping, that 43.4% cited using them because they were feeling anxious, stressed, and/or depressed, compared to 13.2% who had used e-cigarettes because of flavors.

With youth use of traditional tobacco products at record lows and youth use of e-cigarettes declining, Vermont policymakers must be wary of prohibitionist policies that will impact adult access to safer alternatives. They must also be conscious of state-specific survey data indicating that flavors are not a commonly cited reason for youth tobacco and vapor product use and move forward with policies that will address the true reasons youth use such products. 

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