The 2021 results from the Illinois Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) were recently published. The biennial survey, done in coordination with state education and health departments and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) monitors various youth behaviors including dietary and health habits to mental health and substance use.

There is welcome news for state and federal lawmakers in the Prairie State. In 2021, youth use of traditional tobacco products reached historic lows, while youth vaping seems to have peaked in 2019 and has steadily declined since.

In 2021, only 2.5% of Illinois 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. These are some of the lowest levels recorded. In 1993 (the first year Illinois’ YRBS asked about cigarette use), nearly one-third (29.1%) of high schoolers were currently smoking. Between 1993 and 2021, smoking among Illinois high school students declined by 91.4%. These declines have been steady and not impacted by youth use of e-cigarettes as youth smoking decreased by 46.8% between 2019 and 2021.

Use of other traditional tobacco products is also down. In 2021, 1.9% of Illinois high school students reported currently using smokeless tobacco—a 53.7% decline from 2019. Only 2.6% of high school students in the Prairie State reported currently smoking cigars, which was down by 57.4% from 2019.

In recent years, policymakers in Illinois (and nationwide) have turned their attention towards the increase in youth use of electronic cigarettes or vapor products. In Illinois, youth vaping seems to have peaked in 2019 when nearly half (49.2%) of high schoolers had ever tried an e-cigarette and 19.9% were currently vaping. In 2021, 38% reported having ever tried an e-cigarette (a 22.8% decline), while 16.7% were currently vaping—a 16.1% decrease. Daily vaping is also down, with only 4.5% using e-cigarettes every day, which is an 18.2% decrease from 2019.

Federal Democratic lawmakers from Illinois including Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi and Senator Richard Durbin have consistently called upon federal regulators to remove flavored tobacco and vapor products from the market. State lawmakers have introduced their own legislation banning such sales and just recently the Cook County Board of Commissioners approved a ban on the sale of flavored tobacco and vapor products.

Such efforts ignore the sharp declines in youth tobacco and vapor product use. They are also unlikely to address the real reason why youth vaping: self-medicating. According to CDC survey data, in 2021, among U.S. youth who were currently using e-cigarettes, 43.4% cited using them because of feelings of anxiety, depression, and/or stress. Just over one in ten (13.2%) cited using them because of flavors.

Illinois lawmakers should turn their attention towards this. In 2021, among Illinois high schoolers, more than two-fifths (42.1%) reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, which was a 16% increase from 2019. Further, more than one-fifth (20.3%) reported having made a suicide plan in the 12 months prior to the survey, which was a 6.8% increase from 2019.

It is imperative that policymakers understand the significant decline in youth tobacco use and the recent decrease in youth vaping. Rather than imposing prohibitionist bans that do not address the real reasons why youth are using age-restricted products, Illinois lawmakers should determine how to reverse a growing mental health crisis among the Prairie State’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.