The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published the results of the 2021 Youth Behavior Survey. There is great news for policymakers in the Hawkeye State as youth use of traditional tobacco products including cigars, cigarettes, and smokeless tobacco is at all-time lows while youth vaping has steadily declined since peaking in 2019.

In 2021, among Iowa high school students, less than one-fifth (17.4%) reported having ever tried a combustible cigarette, while 4.1% reported current cigarette use. Current use is defined as having used the product on at least one occasion in the 30 days prior to the survey. Between 2019 and 2021, ever-use of cigarettes decreased by 30.4% while current use declined by 38.8%. These are some of the lowest levels recorded. In 1997, more than one-third (37.5%) of Iowa high school students were currently smoking. Between 1997 and 2021, smoking rates declined by over 89%.

In 2021, 2.3% of Iowa high schoolers reported current smokeless tobacco use and 2.4% reported currently using cigars. Between 2019 and 2021, smokeless tobacco and cigar use declined by 53.1% and 45.5%, respectively.

As youth traditional tobacco use becomes essentially eradicated, policymakers have turned their attention towards novel tobacco harm-reduction products including e-cigarettes.

Youth vaping seems to have peaked in Iowa in 2019 when nearly half (47.5%) reported having ever tried an e-cigarette and one-fifth (20.1%) reported current use. Between 2019 and 2021, ever-use of e-cigarettes declined by 26.7% to a little over one-third (34.8%) reporting having ever tried an e-cigarette. During the same period, current use declined by 18.4% to only 16.4% of Iowa high schoolers reporting having used an e-cigarette in the month prior to the survey.

While policymakers should celebrate these tremendous declines, across the nation legislation and ordinances have been introduced that restrict adult access to tobacco and tobacco harm-reduction products. Unfortunately, prohibitionist policies do not address the real reasons why youth are using tobacco and vapor products.

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

In Iowa, mental health issues among high school students are increasing. In 2021, nearly two-fifths (39.1%) of Iowa high schoolers reported persistent feelings of hopelessness and/or sadness. This is a 17.4% increase from 2019 and the highest level recorded. Further, nearly one-fourth (22.6%) cited having seriously considered suicide while 16.5% made an actual suicide plan.

Policymakers in the Hawkeye State should welcome the declines in youth tobacco and vapor product use. They should also be mindful of the reasoning why youth use age-restricted products and address the growing mental health crisis among Iowa (and American) 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.