The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recently published the results of the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) for Maine high school students. The biennial high school student survey is conducted with state health and education departments in conjunction with the CDC to monitor various youth behaviors from diet and physical activity to mental health well-being and substance use.

There is great news for lawmakers in the Pine Tree State as youth use of traditional tobacco products—including cigarettes, cigars, and smokeless tobacco—is at record lows among Maine high school students. Further, vaping among Maine youth seems to have steadily declined since peaking in 2019.

In 2021, 17.7% of Maine high school students reported ever trying a combustible cigarette, and 4.3% reported currently smoking. Current use is defined as having used the product on at least one occasion in the 30 days prior to the survey. These are some of the lowest levels recorded. In 1995 (the first year the YRBS recorded youth cigarette use), more than one-third (37.8%) of Maine high schoolers were currently smoking. Between 1995 and 2021, smoking rates decreased by a massive 88.6%. Further, the introduction of e-cigarettes and vapor products has not led to increases in youth smoking. Between 2019 and 2021, ever-use of cigarettes declined by 22.7%, while current use decreased by 36.8%.

Other traditional tobacco product use is also down. In 2021, 2.7% of Maine high school students reported currently using cigars and 2.3% were currently using smokeless tobacco products. Current cigar use has declined by 46% between 2019 and 2021, while current smokeless tobacco use decreased by 42.5% during the same period.

As youth tobacco use declines, policymakers have turned their attention towards e-cigarette use. Similar to nationwide data, in Maine, youth vaping seems to have peaked in 2019 when 46.3% of high schoolers reported having tried an e-cigarette and 30.2% were currently vaping. In 2021, 31.7% of Maine high schoolers reported trying an e-cigarette (a 31.5% decline from 2019) and 17.5% reported current e-cigarette use, which was a 42.1% decrease from 2019’s peak.

Despite these declines, Maine lawmakers have introduced legislation that aims to ban the sale of flavored tobacco and vapor products. While addressing youth use of any age-restricted product is laudable, prohibitionist flavor bans are misguided policies that do not address the true reasons youth use e-cigarettes.

In 2021, among U.S. middle and high school students who were currently using e-cigarettes, nearly half (43.4%) cited using them because they were feeling anxious, depressed, and/or stressed, according to the CDC’s National Youth Tobacco Survey. Only 13.2% cited using e-cigarettes because of flavors.

In Maine (and nationally), more and more students are reporting feelings of sadness and suicidal thoughts and/or actions. In 2021, 37.9% of Manie high schoolers reported persistent feelings of sadness. This was the highest level recorded as well as a 20.7% increase from 2019. More than one in five (20.2%) reported having made a suicide plan in 2021 and nearly one in ten (9.6%) made a suicide attempt in the 12 months prior to the survey.

Policymakers in the Pine Tree State (as well as nationwide) must lay off a misguided war on tobacco and vapor products given the epic declines in youth use. They should also take notice of survey data on youth e-cigarette use, which finds youth use such products to self-medicate and focus on an alarming (and growing) mental health crisis among Maine (and the nation’s) youth. 

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.