Health

Teen vaping numbers in U.S. climb, fuelled by Juul and mint flavour, research shows

Teenagers in the U.S. who use electronic cigarettes prefer the Juul Labs brand, and mint is the favourite flavour for many of them, suggesting a shift after the company stopped selling fruit and dessert flavours in stores.

5.3 million young people use e-cigarettes in the U.S., compared with about 3.6 million last year

Mint was the most popular flavour among Juul users in 10th and 12th grades, and the second-most popular among middle-schoolers, a new study indicates. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Teenagers in the U.S. who use electronic cigarettes prefer the Juul Labs brand, and mint is the favourite flavour for many of them, suggesting a shift after the company stopped selling fruit and dessert flavours in stores.

The findings are in a pair of studies published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). 

One of the studies details previously released figures indicating the surge in use of e-cigarettes by under-18s shows no signs of slowing down.

An estimated 28 per cent of high school students and 11 per cent of middle school students said they had used e-cigarettes within the past month, according to the report, based on a national survey conducted earlier this year. That amounts to 5.3 million young users, compared with about 3.6 million last year, despite a federal law that prohibits sales to under-18s.

The government report, which surveyed almost 20,000 young people, also found Juul is the preferred brand for 60 per cent of high school e-cigarette users. Most of them used flavoured e-cigarettes, with nearly 60 per cent of users in that group favouring mint or menthol.

A separate study, led by University of Southern California (USC) researchers, suggests menthol doesn't have the same appeal as mint. The study found mint was the most popular flavour among Juul users in 10th and 12th grades, and the second-most popular among middle-schoolers.

In contrast, less than six per cent of teenagers across all grades preferred menthol. The study was based on a different national survey that included 1,800 Juul users.

The results are worrisome, but not surprising, said Thomas Ylioja, a smoking cessation expert at National Jewish Health hospital in Denver.

"We have a whole generation of young people who are addicted to these products," said Ylioja, who was not involved in the studies. "Rather than giving up when they can't get their particular flavour, they're switching to a flavour that is more available."

E-cigarettes typically heat a solution that contains nicotine, which makes cigarettes and e-cigarettes addictive. They have been sold in the U.S. for more than a decade and are often pitched as a lower-risk nicotine source for adult smokers.

Erika Sward, spokesperson for the American Lung Association, said the findings "call for drastic action to be taken. We are in the midst of an e-cigarette crisis, the aftermath of which we could be dealing with for decades."

A few states have taken steps to prohibit flavoured e-cigarettes, and in September, the Trump administration proposed a nationwide ban, including mint and menthol. An announcement is expected soon from the Food and Drug Administration.

But health groups and anti-vaping advocates worry regulators may be backing away from their original proposal.

Juul voluntarily halted sales of its fruit and dessert flavoured e-cigarette pods last month, leaving only mint, menthol and tobacco-flavoured products on the market. (MaryCaroline/Shutterstock)

"Exemptions for mint and menthol are problematic if we're really thinking about preventing kids from using these products," said Jessica Barrington-Trimis, co-author of the USC study.

Flavours are banned for traditional cigarettes in the U.S., except for menthol.

The San Francisco-based Juul, the bestselling vaping brand in the country, stopped selling some flavours last year in stores and only sold them online.

Last month, the company voluntarily halted all sales of fruit and dessert flavoured e-cigarette pods, leaving only mint, menthol and tobacco-flavoured products on the market. In Canada, its product selection is limited but it still offers mint, mango and vanilla flavoured tobacco pods.

Facing multiple state and federal investigations, Juul has pledged to not lobby against the federal flavour ban. The Vapor Technology Association, which represents the industry, however, is pushing back against a ban with a marketing campaign.

Juul representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the new research.

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