By Amy Norton
FRIDAY, May 20, 2022 (HealthDay News) — A growing number of American teens are vaping marijuana — a habit that may in some ways be riskier than smoking weed old-fashioned, a new study finds.
Researchers found that between 2017 and 2019, the percentage of teens reporting marijuana use in the past month increased slightly — from 13.9% to 15.4%.
What really changed, the study found, was how children used the drug. There was a sharp increase in vaping, while traditional smoking of marijuana declined.
The percentage of children who said they “frequently” vape marijuana — at least once a week — more than doubled, from 2.1% to 5.4%. Occasional use (one to six times a month) increased at a similar rate.
At the same time, the proportion of children who smoked marijuana decreased. Essentially, vaping seemed to replace smoking, according to lead researcher Katherine Keyes, a professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York City.
She said she could only speculate about the reasons. But the rising popularity of nicotine vaping, along with legalization and changing social norms surrounding marijuana, are likely factors, Keyes said.
Those points were echoed by Linda Richter, vice president of prevention research and analysis for the nonprofit Partnership to End Addiction.
She said previous research offers some “compelling explanations” for the trends seen in this study.
“First, the wave of nicotine vaping that has spread across middle and high schools in recent years has increased the likelihood that kids who vape nicotine will switch to vaping marijuana,” said Richter, who was not involved in the study.
Vaping, she added, has become “normalized”, while at the same time “pro-marijuana messages” have grown.
“Vaped products are also typically seen as safer and healthier than smoked products because when e-cigarettes were originally introduced to the market, they were advertised as safer alternatives to cigarette smoking,” Richter said.
But vaping is far from benign. And when it comes to marijuana, Keyes said, vaping can actually deliver a higher dose of THC than smoking. THC is the active ingredient behind marijuana’s ‘high’.
That higher THC dose, Richter said, can “bind young people to the substance and keep them coming back for more.”
And while vaping doesn’t involve smoke, the liquids used in vaporizers contain potentially toxic chemicals, Richter points out. Vitamin E acetate, an additive in some THC-containing vapor products, has been linked to serious — and sometimes fatal — lung injuries.
That lack of smoke is also kind of a problem: Kids can hide marijuana vaping more easily than smoking, Richter said, because there’s no telltale weed smell.
The new findings — published May 19 in the journal Addiction — are based on more than 51,000 American teens who took part in the annual health survey between 2017 and 2019.
During that time, marijuana vaping increased in boys and girls, with a large peak in those using at least once a week: from 2.9% to 6.2% in boys and from 1.3% to 4.7 % in girls.
In 2019, marijuana vaping was more popular than traditional weed smoking among all racial and ethnic groups except black teens.
Keyes also pointed to a finding from a previous study of the same group of teens: High school students reported a particularly sharp rise in marijuana vaping — with prevalence nearly tripling, from 5% to 14%.
According to Keyes and Richter, the vaping craze presents parents with difficult problems. Not only is marijuana use harder to notice, but kids are seeing marijuana vaping products all over the market, including on social media, they emphasized.
“It’s not a question of whether your child will be exposed to this, but when,” Keyes said. “The best thing parents can do is talk to their kids about marijuana use and start early — in high school.”
Richter agreed, encouraging parents to take a “health rather than a punitive approach” in those conversations.
Partnership to End Addiction has advice for parents to talk about marijuana.
SOURCES: Katherine Keyes, PhD, professor, epidemiology, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, New York City; Linda Richter, PhD, vice president, prevention research and analysis, Partnership to End Addiction, New York City; Addiction, May 19, 2022, Online
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