Unprecedented study of 3,000 Michigan public school buildings set to launch in summer

Dramatic increases in vaping marijuana, nicotine for young adults, UM study shows

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor —  The number of young adults in the U.S. who are vaping marijuana and nicotine has more than doubled in two years, according to a national study by researchers at the University of Michigan.

Vaping has increased dramatically among 19- to 22-year-olds in and out of college as the perception of harmful heath risks decline, researchers say. 

Between 2017 and 2019, the percentage of young adults who vaped marijuana at least once in 30 days increased from 5% to 14% among full-time college students and from 8% to 17% among those not in college, according to the study. 

In those same years, those who vaped nicotine increased from 6% to 22% among college students and from 8% to 18% among young adults not in college.

A woman using a vaping device exhales a puff of smoke.

The findings come from the annual national Monitoring the Future Panel study, which has been tracking substance use among American college students and youth not in college since 1980 with a team of research professors at UM. It's funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The increased vaping of adults is the reverse of a trend researchers have seen in young teens

In a national survey, just under 20% of high school students and 5% of middle school students said they were recent users of electronic cigarettes and other vaping products. That marks a big decline from a similar survey last year that found about 28% of high school students and 11% of middle school students recently vaped.

The survey suggests that the number of school kids who vape fell by 1.8 million in a year, from 5.4 million to 3.6 million, officials said.

The doubling to tripling of vaping marijuana and nicotine are among the largest increases researchers have seen since the study began over 40 years ago, said John Schulenberg, principal investigator of the Monitoring the Future Panel Study.

"This is a worrisome trend given the health risks associated with vaping, including an increased risk of COVID-19 and the addictive properties of nicotine," Schulenberg said. "For decades, we saw consistent drops in nicotine use in the form of cigarette smoking among young adults, especially college students. And now, with this rapid increase in vaping across a few short years, over 1 in 5 19- to 22-year-olds currently vapes nicotine."

Another main finding of the study included the young adult use of marijuana in any form during 2019 was at or near the highest levels seen over the past four decades.

The annual prevalence for marijuana use was 43% in 2019, the highest it has been since the early 1980s. Using marijuana on a daily or near-daily basis has also been increasing, reaching 6% among college students and 15% among youth not in college in 2019.

"Daily marijuana use is a clear health risk," Schulenberg said. "The brain is still growing in the early 20s, and as the surgeon general recently reported, the scientific evidence indicates that heavy marijuana use can be detrimental to cognitive functioning and mental health."

As of 2019, over 1 in 7 young adults aged 19-22 who are not in college used marijuana on a daily or near-daily basis. For them, getting a foothold on the roles and responsibilities of adulthood may be more difficult. Additionally, college students who were near-daily marijuana users typically have poor academic performance and drop out of college, he said.

There are likely multiple reasons for the ongoing increases among young adults including the ongoing decline in perceptions of risk of harm from regular marijuana use. 

"Perceptions of great risk peaked at 75% in 1991, when marijuana use among college and noncollege youth was at historic lows," said Lloyd Johnston, the original principal investigator of the Monitoring the Future study. "We have consistently seen this inverse relationship between perceptions of risks of harm and actual use, with changes in perceptions of risk typically preceding changes in use."

The findings reported are from surveys conducted in the spring through fall 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers say the findings provide an important "before picture" for understanding the possible impact especially on academics, housing and employment challenges on young adult substance use.

Four people have died in Michigan because of a vaping-related lung injury, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said in February

Last year, 73 vaping-related lung injury cases were reported in the state and Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit successfully handled the first double-lung transplant from a serious vaping case.

Other findings on illicit drugs among young adults

 The study is currently collecting 2020 data among college students and young adults and also examines trends in the use of alcohol and tobacco.

In 2019, the use of illicit drugs other than marijuana was 17% for both college and noncollege youth. It has declined somewhat for both groups since recent highs in 2014.

Cocaine and LSD have shown recent uneven increases among college students and youth not in college; however, the use of both of these substances remains relatively low, with annual prevalence of 6% or lower in 2019.  

The usage of nonmedical prescription narcotic drugs other than heroin, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, showed a significant five-year decline for 19-to-22-year-olds, reaching the lowest levels reported since the late 1990s. Between 2014 and 2019, it dropped from 4.8% to 1.5% for college students, and from 7.7% to 3.3% for same-aged youth not in college.

The use of amphetamines continued to decline somewhat for college students to 8.1% in 2019 and to 5.9% for same-aged youth not in college. In contrast to what is true for most other illicit drugs, nonmedical amphetamine use has been higher among college students in recent years.

Alcohol use has been declining for several years among college students and same-aged youth not in college, "although it continues to remain their drug of choice, especially among college students," researchers noted.

In 2019, binge drinking — defined as having five or more drinks in a row at least once in the past two weeks — was 33% for college students and 22% for youth not in college. Prevalence of having 10 or more drinks in the past two weeks has been fairly level for college students and youth not in college (it was 11% for both in years 2015-2019 combined).

Cigarette use among young adults continues its long-term decline at 7.9% in 2019 for college students; it reached a new all-time low of 16% in 2019 for same-aged youth not in college.


Twitter: @SarahRahal_