Are Vaping Teenagers Turning To Marijuana?

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Stewart Lawrence Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.
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Are teenage vaping enthusiasts increasingly likely to become pot smokers?  A study published in the scientific journal Pediatrics last week strongly suggests as much.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California surveyed 2,668 students at 10 public high schools in Los Angeles beginning in fall 2013, when they were 14 years old and in ninth grade.

Teenage vapers in those schools were 3.5 times more likely to use marijuana than students who had never tried e-cigarettes, the researchers found.   

In fact, about 11% of those teen vapers had converted their vaping devices – usually known as “pens” or “mods” — to smoke marijuana, in part because vaping devices made pot-smoking easier to conceal.

This latest published study is no outlier.  In April 2018, a study conducted under the auspices of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and based on a much larger sample of respondents (about 13,000) reached a nearly identical finding:   Teen vapers were 4 times more likely than non-vapers to smoke marijuana. Other studies have produced similar results.

Researchers caution that even a strong statistical correlation doesn’t prove that vaping actually leads to increased marijuana use.

“I think we need to be very careful with interpreting these relationships. But it seems that the use of these tobacco products, including combustible cigarettes and e-cigarettes, seems to precede the use of marijuana somehow,” says Dr. Ana Navas-Acien, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

The vaping-leads-to-pot argument is essentially the same one that drug critics have used for decades to stigmatize marijuana as a “dangerous” substance that inevitably leads pot smokers to try cocaine and heroin – and eventually to get “hooked.”

The basic idea is that once the brain gets accustomed to a euphoric high from one drug, it naturally becomes eager to be stimulated at more intense levels.   

Some brain studies have tried to prove the “gateway hypothesis” for marijuana use, which most public health specialists have discounted as simplistic.  

But the argument seems to be making a comeback.  Only now the culprit isn’t pot but nicotine. Unlike cigarette smokers, vapers can control the amount of nicotine they are imbibing simply by loading a high-dose nicotine vaping liquid cartridge.   

A number of anecdotal news reports have publicized teenage vapers becoming “strung out” on vaping, largely due to the nicotine high.

But that doesn’t prove that vaping will inevitably turn you into a pothead.

In fact, circumstantial evidence seems to suggest otherwise.  Tobacco and alcohol use nationwide has declined sharply among teens while marijuana smoking has spiked.  If tobacco smoking isn’t a gateway to marijuana use, why point the finger at vaping?

Even the authors of the recent vaping studies recommend caution in drawing conclusions about the vaping-pot connection without more careful research. Vapers, they say, may simply be more adventurous than peers.  It could be their risk-taking personalities – not their substance use patterns – that are driving them to try pot.

Still, both studies seem to suggest that controls on vaping by youth need to be tightened.  According to the Ann Arbor study, the earlier youth start vaping the more likely they are to become marijuana users. And the rapid spread of the vaping pen known as “Juul” to high schools in recent months suggests that youth are increasingly vulnerable to higher levels of nicotine consumption even as their cigarette smoking rates decline.