The Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC) recently published the Utah 2021 results of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Working in conjunction with local and state education and health departments, the biennial survey assesses various student behaviors and actions. These range from diets and physical activity to mental health and substance use.

There is great news for policymakers in the Beehive State, as youth vaping in Utah is below the national average, while youth use of traditional tobacco products is at historic lows.

In 2021, among Utah high school students, only 26.5% reported having ever tried an e-cigarette, while 9.7% reported current use of e-cigarettes. Current use is defined as having used the product on at least one occasion in the 30 days prior to the survey. While current use of e-cigarettes remained unchanged, ever-use of e-cigarettes decreased by 13.1% from 30.5% of students in 2019. 

These are also far below the national average. In 2021, 36.2% of U.S. high school students had ever tried an e-cigarette, while 18% reported current use.

Even better, despite rhetoric from anti-vaping organizations, the introduction of e-cigarettes has not led to increases in youth use of traditional tobacco products in Utah.

In 2021, only 10.3% of high school students reported having ever tried smoking, while 1.9% were currently smoking. These are some of the lowest levels recorded. Between 1991 (the first year the YRBS was conducted in Utah) and 2021, ever-use of combustible cigarettes decreased by 78.9% from nearly half (48.8%) of students. Moreover, current use declined by 88.7% from 16.8% of students then-currently smoking cigarettes in 1991.

Other tobacco product use is down as well. In 2021, only 1.2% of Utah high school students reported currently using smokeless tobacco and 1% reported current cigar use. Again, these are on the decline, with smokeless tobacco use decreasing by 29.4% between 2019 and 2021, and cigar use declining by 16.7% during the same period.

As youth e-cigarette use has become more prevalent, policymakers have turned their attention towards thwarting youth use by enacting prohibitionist policies including banning flavors in tobacco and vapor products.

It is imperative to understand that youth are not overwhelmingly citing flavors as a reason for using e-cigarettes. According to the CDC’s National Youth Tobacco Survey, in 2021, among U.S. middle and high school students who were currently using e-cigarettes, 43.4% cited using them because they were feeling anxious, depressed, and/or stressed.

In the Beehive State, this should be cause for alarm as in 2021, 41.5% of high school students in the state reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, which was a 13.1% increase from 2019. While suicidal thoughts and attempts did decrease slightly during the same period, by 3.7% and 3.2% respectively, the percentage of Utah high school students who made a suicide attempt that resulted in an “injury, poisoning, or overdose” increased by 28.6%.

Utah policymakers should welcome the recent declines in youth use of vapor products and the historic lows in youth traditional tobacco use. While addressing youth use of any age-restricted product is laudable, draconian taxes and prohibitionist policies which restrict adult access to safer alternatives to cigarettes do not consider these declines, nor the reasons why youth use e-cigarettes. A growing mental health crisis is impacting Utah’s (and the nation’s) youth, and lawmakers should direct their attention toward remedying this troublesome issue.

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.