The daily or near-daily use of marijuana now exceeds the daily cigarette smoking among high school seniors, according to the most recent Monitoring the Future (MFT) survey. The results also indicate that, while teens’ use of cigarettes dropped to an all-time low, the use of marijuana and e-cigarettes have increased among young people.
Researchers have attributed the trends in use to perceptions of harm associated with these products. While the use of marijuana and e-cigarettes are perceived as being less harmful than smoking cigarettes, marijuana and e-cigarettes can both lead to health consequences for young people as well.
Adolescent tobacco use
Tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of death, leading to heart disease, respiratory problems, cancers and strokes. Someone can get hooked on smoking in only a couple of days because of the highly addictive substance in cigarettes and other tobacco products — nicotine. Young people who begin smoking can become easily addicted — nearly 9 out of 10 smokers started before they were 18 years old — and those who start smoking this young will have a harder time quitting.
Young adults who begin smoking in their teens and early 20s may begin to develop early smoking-related health problems. Research shows that early smoking can cause early cardiovascular disease and respiratory problems such as wheezing and asthma. Adolescents who smoke are exposed to the highly addictive nicotine in tobacco products in addition to about 70 cancer-causing chemicals, which can damage a person’s DNA and cause cancer.
Fortunately, the use of tobacco products among teens declined from 2014 to 2015. Fewer young people reported initiating smoking, and the percentage of students reporting past-month cigarette use declined for eighth, 10th and 12th graders. In addition, there have been substantial declines in the availability of cigarettes, greater negative beliefs and attitudes about smoking and a greater perceived risk of harm associated with smoking cigarettes.
Adolescent e-cigarette use
In recent years, the popularity of e-cigarettes (i.e., electronic cigarettes) has grown rapidly among youth. There was an alarming increase in e-cigarette use among youth last year, with 9.5 percent of eighth graders, 14 percent of 10th graders and 16.2 percent of 12th graders who reported e-cigarette use last year.
Researchers are still unsure whether the substantial increase in e-cigarette use among teens is due to the marketing tactics urging smokers to use e-cigarettes when they cannot smoke conventional cigarettes or for smoking cessation purposes, or the fact that the availability of flavored e-cigarettes is more appealing to young people. Cigarettes with added flavoring were banned in 2009 as they were believed to appeal to children, and experts and lawmakers have discussed banning flavored e-cigarettes to reduce the prevalence of e-cigarette use as well.
Despite the claims by e-cigarette companies that the use of e-cigarettes is effective for smoking cessation, there is very little evidence supporting the safety of e-cigarette use or for the effectiveness of e-cigarettes to help people quit smoking. The fact that e-cigarettes are unregulated by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) means that there are many unforeseen risks that may be involved in smoking e-cigarettes, despite any potential benefits associated with using these products.
The varying levels of nicotine and other cancer-causing agents including formaldehyde that have been found in e-cigarettes can contribute to numerous potential health risks among young people. All products containing nicotine, for example, can have an impact on an adolescent’s brain development, and inhaling any smokable product can cause damage to the lungs.
Marijuana use during adolescence
A greater percentage of young people are now using marijuana, according to the results of the MTF survey. The percentage of young people reporting daily marijuana use has also increased — 1.1 percent of eighth graders, 3 percent of 10th graders and 6 percent of 12th graders reported using marijuana on a daily basis in 2015.
The legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational purposes has led to the greater acceptance and availability of cannabis products, despite the lack of knowledge that exists regarding the potential health consequences resulting from higher-potency cannabis strains and long-term use of marijuana. Society’s view of marijuana as harmless has contributed to reductions in the perceived harm associated with using marijuana among young people.
Despite less harm that is associated with marijuana use, recent studies indicate that adolescents’ regular use of marijuana has a negative impact on the development of the brain, contributing to cognitive impairments, including lower IQ and poorer educational achievement, changes in gray and white matter brain tissue development, and altered endocannabinoid signaling, which can change the brain’s reward process, goal-directed behavior and motivation.
The brain’s endocannabinoid system — a signaling system that is composed of cannabinoids (CB) receptors — is responsible for multiple functions in the brain (e.g., learning, memory, motor coordination, reward, pleasure, motivation and emotionality). The main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), binds to the receptors and increases the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, which can promote drug abuse and seeking behaviors. Adolescents who use marijuana are more likely to engage in drug use and are motivated to seek other drugs.
Furthermore, adolescent marijuana use increased the risk of early onset of psychotic symptoms and psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, especially among young people with a family history of psychotic disorders, a childhood history of abuse or a pre-existing genetic vulnerability. Chronic marijuana use also increases the risk for rare health problems in adolescents, especially a heightened risk for an aggressive form of testicular cancer in young men.
Based on the most recent data from the MTF survey, it seems that efforts to reduce cigarette smoking among young people have been largely successful, while the legalization of marijuana has contributed to greater marijuana use. Lower perceived risk of harm regarding the use of marijuana and e-cigarettes seems to have contributed to the increased use of these substances among teens. Overall, the declining trend in adolescents’ cigarette use is promising, and it is important that young people are aware of the potential risks associated with using e-cigarettes and marijuana. Just because something is legal does not necessarily mean that it is safe.
White River Academy is a residential therapeutic treatment facility for teenage boys between the ages of 12 and 17 with substance abuse, behavioral problems and co-occurring conditions. For more information about the behavioral treatments available at White River Academy, please contact our 24/7 helpline to speak to a member of our admissions team.
About the author
Amanda Habermann, graduated from California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques.