Dramatic increases in vaping marijuana, nicotine among US college students, young adults

September 15, 2020

ANN ARBOR—Vaping marijuana and vaping nicotine have increased dramatically among 19-to-22-year-olds, with both more than doubling between 2017 and 2019, according to the University of Michigan’s annual U.S. national Monitoring the Future Panel Study.

In addition, use of marijuana in any form in 2019 among young adults was at or near the highest levels seen over the past four decades.

Between 2017 and 2019, the percentage of 19-to-22-year-olds who vaped marijuana at least once in the past 30 days (30-day prevalence) increased from 5% to 14% among full-time college students and from 8% to 17% among those not in college. Similarly, between 2017 and 2019, the 30-day prevalence of vaping nicotine increased from 6% to 22% among college students and from 8% to 18% among 19-to-22-year-olds not in college.

“This doubling to tripling of prevalence of vaping marijuana and vaping nicotine over just two years are among the largest increases in MTF history for any substance 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. 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 one-in-five 19-to-22-year-olds currently vapes nicotine.”

Another main finding from this annual national study is the continued high levels of marijuana use among college students and youth not in college; annual prevalence for both groups 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, both percentages at or near historic highs over the past four decades.

“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 one-in-seven 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 all the more difficult. As for college students who are daily or near-daily marijuana users, we know from our research and that of others that heavy marijuana use is associated with poor academic performance and dropping out of college.”

There likely are multiple reasons for the continuing increases in marijuana use among young adults, according to the researchers. One possible reason is the ongoing decline in perceptions of risk of harm from regular marijuana use. In 2019, 24% of those aged 19-22 perceived regular use of marijuana as carrying great risk of harm, among the lowest levels since 1980 when tracking of this age group began.

“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.”

These 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. It is conducted by a team of research professors at U-M, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Results are based on data from college students one to four years beyond high school graduation who are enrolled full-time in a two- or four-year college in March of the given year, compared with same-age high school graduates not enrolled full time in college.

The findings reported are from surveys conducted in the spring through fall 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. These 2019 findings provide an important “before picture” for understanding the possible impact of the pandemic experiences (and especially the academic, housing and employment challenges) on young adult substance use. The study is currently collecting 2020 data among college students and young adults.

This ongoing annual study also examined trends in the use of other substances including alcohol and tobacco. In 2019, use of most substances remained steady or declined modestly. Study results include:

  • Annual prevalence of any of the illicit drugs other than marijuana was 17% in 2019 for both college and noncollege youth. It has declined somewhat for both groups since recent highs in 2014.
  • Two of the many illicit substances measured—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 2019 annual prevalence of nonmedical use of 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 annual prevalence 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.
  • Several other illicit drugs with relatively low prevalence have shown some leveling or uneven change in recent years among college students and same-aged youth not in college, including MDMA (ecstasy, Molly) and nonmedical use of sedatives (barbiturates) and tranquilizers; annual prevalence of each was 4% or lower in 2019 among 19-to-22-year-olds.
  • 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. 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 (a measure of high-intensity drinking) 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, with 30-day prevalence at 7.9% in 2019 for college students (near the all-time low); it reached a new all-time low of 16% in 2019 for same-aged youth not in college.

Tables / Figures
Monitoring the Future
National Institute on Drug Abuse
John Schulenberg
U-M Study: Marijuana Usage Among Young Adults In U.S. At Four-Decade High (WWJ Radio)

Morgan Sherburne, 734-647-1844, [email protected]

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