The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published the 2021 results of the biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) for New York. The school-based survey examines various student attitudes and behaviors from diets and physical activity to mental health and substance use.

While there is positive news for youth vaping rates in New York, alarmingly, youth use of traditional tobacco products such as combustible cigarettes increased between 2019 and 2021. This increase comes after the state banned flavors in e-cigarette products in July 2020.

In 2021, 5% of New York high school students reported currently smoking combustible cigarettes, defined as having used the product on at least one occasion in the 30 days prior to the survey. Further, 0.9% reported frequent (20 or more days) combustible cigarette use, and 0.7% reported smoking daily. These are significant declines from 1997 (the first year the YRBS was conducted in New York). Between 1997 and 2021, current use of combustible cigarettes decreased by 84%, frequent use by 94.5%, and daily use by 94.4%.

Unfortunately, 2021’s rates of cigarette use are higher than in 2019. Between 2019 and 2021, current use increased by 19%, frequent use by 12.5%, and daily use by 16.7%. Nationally, current cigarette use among high school students decreased by 36.7%, from 6% of high schoolers smoking in 2019 to 3.8% in 2021.

While cigarette use has increased, youth use of other traditional tobacco products is down. In 2021, only 3.9% of New York high schoolers reported current use of smokeless tobacco products and 4.4% reported current cigar use.

As traditional tobacco products reach record lows, policymakers have turned their attention towards e-cigarettes and vapor products.

In 2021, 15.7% of high schoolers reported currently using e-cigarettes, 4.2% reported frequent use and 2.7% had used e-cigarettes daily. Unlike cigarette use, youth vaping did decrease in recent years. Between 2019 and 2021, current e-cigarette use declined by 29.9%, frequent use by 34.4% and daily use declined by 41.3 percent.

And alarmingly, young adult use of combustible cigarettes has also increased in the years since implementing the state flavored e-cigarette ban. According to the CDC’s Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System survey, which annually assesses adult behaviors, in 2021, 6.2% of New Yorkers aged 18 to 24 years old were currently smoking combustible cigarettes, which was a 12.7% increase from 2020 when 5.5% of young adult New Yorkers were currently smoking. Nationally, on average, states saw young adult smoking rates decrease by over 19% during the same period.

New York’s flavored vape ban is a misguided policy. While effective at reducing vaping rates among youth, it led to increases in combustible cigarettes which are far more harmful than tobacco harm reduction products including e-cigarettes. Moreover, the policy failed to take into consideration the true reasons why youth use e-cigarettes.

According to national survey data, in 2021, among American youth who were currently vaping, 43.4% cited using e-cigarettes because they were anxious, depressed, and/or stressed. Only 13.2% cited using e-cigarettes because of flavors.

Policymakers in other states should be wary of imposing bans on flavors in e-cigarettes. In the year after New York’s flavor ban went into effect, combustible cigarette rates increased among both youth and young adults, bucking the national trend. 

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.