Most teen e-cigarette users don't vape nicotine

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Last year, a national school survey alarmed health professionals, finding nearly 1 in 5 high school seniors used electronic cigarettes in the past month – a rate even higher than students' use of conventional cigarettes, which has been on a multiyear slide.

This year, the annual Monitoring the Future survey made an even more surprising finding: Though e-cigarette use rates appear stable, more than 60 percent of students who use them say they are vaping nicotine- and drug-free liquid, which is available to adult buyers in various flavors.

Only about a fifth of high school e-cigarette users knowingly used nicotine-laced liquids – a level that gradually increases from eighth to 12th grades – and smaller numbers used the devices to consume marijuana or didn't know what was in the liquid.

Click through to learn more about e-cigarettes:

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Most teen e-cigarette users don't vape nicotine
Graphic explains how electronic cigarettes work. (Image via AP)
E-cigarettes appear on display at Vape store in Chicago, Wednesday, April 23, 2014. The federal government wants to ban sales of electronic cigarettes to minors and require approval for new products and health warning labels under regulations being proposed by the Food and Drug Administration. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Electronic cigarettes purchased by Cliff Phillips, a 61-year-old retiree and former smoker, and his wife, Vali, are seen at their home in Cuba, Ill., Tuesday, May 31, 2011. Electronic cigarettes like the one used by Phillips are at the middle of a social and legal debate over whether it’s OK to "light up" in places where regular smokes are banned. E-cigarettes, which are gaining popularity and scrutiny worldwide, are plastic and metal devices that heat a liquid nicotine solution in a disposable cartridge, creating vapor that the "smoker" inhales. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
FILE - In this Feb. 20, 2014 photo, Talia Eisenberg, co-founder of the Henley Vaporium, uses her vaping device in New York. Soon, the Food and Drug Administration will propose rules for e-cigarettes. The rules will have big implications for a fast-growing industry and its legions of customers. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)
In this Feb. 20, 2014 photo, Peter Denholtz, a former smoker and now co-owner of the Henley Vaporium in New York, explains his use of e-cigarettes. E-cigarettes are usually made of metal parts combined with plastic or glass and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They heat the liquid nicotine solution, creating vapor that quickly dissipates when exhaled. The vapor looks like tobacco smoke and can feel like tobacco smoke when taken into the lungs at varying strengths, from no nicotine up to 24 milligrams or more. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27: E-Cigarettes are sold at the V-Revolution E-Cigarette shop in Covent Garden on August 27, 2014 in London, England. The Department of Health have ruled out the outlawing of 'e-cigs' in enclosed spaces in England, despite calls by WHO, The World Health Organisation to do so. WHO have recommended a ban on indoor smoking of e-cigs as part of tougher regulation of products dangerous to children. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27: Different flavours for E-Cigarettes are sold at the V-Revolution E-Cigarette shop in Covent Garden on August 27, 2014 in London, England. The Department of Health have ruled out the outlawing of 'e-cigs' in enclosed spaces in England, despite calls by WHO, The World Health Organisation to do so. WHO have recommended a ban on indoor smoking of e-cigs as part of tougher regulation of products dangerous to children. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
In this Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014 photo, a smoker poses for photos while taking a puff on a Smokio, an electronic cigarette or vaporizer that connects to an iPhone and other smartphones via Bluetooth to track puffs, tally the cost-savings and possible health benefits from switching from regular cigarettes, in Richmond, Va. E-cigarette technology is developing rapidly and federal officials say the technology race could make creating standards for the devices, which heat a liquid to create vapor rather than burning tobacco, more difficult in the future. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Brian Vincent poses in front of a large display of tobacco products at Vincent's Country Store in Westminster, Mass., Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014. Local officials are contemplating what could be a first: a blanket ban on all forms of tobacco and e-cigarettes, leaving some shop owners fuming. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
In this Aug. 14, 2014, photo, shows Daniel Pettley exhaling vapor as he demonstrates the use of his electronic cigarette, at Salt Lake Vapors, in Salt Lake City. Poison control workers say that as the e-cigarette industry has boomed, the number of children exposed to the liquid nicotine that gives hand-held vaporizing gadgets their kick also is spiking. The American Association of Poison Control Centers reports that more than 2,700 people have called about a liquid nicotine exposure this year, up from a few hundred cases three years ago. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
In this Aug. 14, 2014 photo, Jesse Feveryear exhales vapor as he demonstrates the use of his electronic cigarette at Salt Lake Vapors, in Salt Lake City. The Utah Department of Health says new survey data shows a significant increase in electronic cigarettes use among both adults and teenagers. A spokesman for the department say liquid nicotine’s candy flavors can be more attractive to young people than traditional cigarettes, but using the devices can create a lasting addition to nicotine. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
This Aug. 14, 2014 photo shows child-proof refill bottles of liquid nicotine on display at Salt Lake Vapors, in Salt Lake City. The Utah Department of Health says new survey data shows a significant increase in electronic cigarettes use among both adults and teenagers. A spokesman for the department say liquid nicotine’s candy flavors can be more attractive to young people than traditional cigarettes, but using the devices can create a lasting addition to nicotine. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Sales clerk Sam Patel, of Waltham, Mass., displays Zippo Blu butane lighter, left, and a blu e-cigarette, right, at a shop, Wednesday, May 21, 2014, in Brookline, Mass. The maker of Zippo lighters and Lorillard, the nation’s third-biggest tobacco company, are battling over the Blu brand name being used on both Zippo lighters and an electronic cigarette brand. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Sales clerk Sam Patel, of Waltham, Mass., displays a blu e-cigarette, right, and a container of the e-cigarettes, left, at a shop, Wednesday, May 21, 2014, in Brookline, Mass. The maker of Zippo lighters and Lorillard, the nation’s third-biggest tobacco company, are battling over the Blu brand name being used on both Zippo lighters and an electronic cigarette brand. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
In this Feb. 20, 2014 photo, a patron exhales vapor from an e-cigarette at the Henley Vaporium in New York. The proprietors are peddling e-cigarettes to "vapers" in a growing movement that now includes celebrity fans and YouTube gurus, online forums and vapefests around the world. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Eric Scheman demonstrates an e-cigarette at Vape store in Chicago, Wednesday, April 23, 2014. The federal government wants to ban sales of electronic cigarettes to minors and require approval for new products and health warning labels under regulations being proposed by the Food and Drug Administration. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Vials of flavored liquid are seen at Vapeology LA, a store selling electronic cigarettes and related items, at John Hartigan's store in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013. Two California cities have voted to ban electronic cigarettes in public places, and Los Angeles on Wednesday moved to prohibit their sale to minors. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
John Hartigan, right, proprietor of Vapeology LA, a store selling electronic cigarettes and related items, shakes hands with a customer at his store in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013. Two California cities have voted to ban electronic cigarettes in public places, and Los Angeles on Wednesday moved to prohibit their sale to minors. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
This Aug. 14, 2014, photo shows child-proof refill bottles of liquid nicotine at Salt Lake Vapors, in Salt Lake City. Poison control workers say that as the e-cigarette industry has boomed, the number of children exposed to the liquid nicotine that gives hand-held vaporizing gadgets their kick also is spiking. The American Association of Poison Control Centers reports that more than 2,700 people have called about a liquid nicotine exposure this year, up from a few hundred cases three years ago. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Daryl Cura demonstrates an e-cigarette at Vape store in Chicago, Wednesday, April 23, 2014. The federal government wants to ban sales of electronic cigarettes to minors and require approval for new products and health warning labels under regulations being proposed by the Food and Drug Administration. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
This photo taken on Wednesday, March 2, 2011, shows Blair Roberts, a 22-year-old sales associate at Colorado E-Smokes as he adds the liquid nicotine solution to the filter end of an electronic cigarette at an E-Smokes store in Aurora, Colo. There’s no legal age minimum for e-cigarettes in Colorado, and growing health concern that so-called “vaping” of nicotine is growing among kids has made Colorado the latest state to consider age requirements for the nicotine devices popping up at mall kiosks and convenience stores. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)
This photo taken on Wednesday, March 2, 2011, shows Blair Roberts, a 22-year-old sales associate at Colorado E-Smokes as he demonstrates the use of a electronic cigarette and the smoke like vapor that comes from it at an E-Smokes store in Aurora, Colo. There’s no legal age minimum for e-cigarettes in Colorado, and growing health concern that so-called “vaping” of nicotine is growing among kids has made Colorado the latest state to consider age requirements for the nicotine devices popping up at mall kiosks and convenience stores. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)
FILE - In this Aug. 27, 2010 file photo, a package of blucigs electronic cigarettes are shown in Asheboro, N.C. A North Carolina law banning sales of electronic cigarettes to minors takes effect Thursday, Aug. 1. E-cigarettes emit a vapor that includes nicotine but without many of the harmful chemicals in tobacco smoke. Now convenience stores and other places that sell the product will be responsible for enforcing the law. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File )
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The finding that most high school students sampling e-cigarettes aren't using nicotine-laced liquid either is good news or evidence of a nefarious business model, depending on whom you ask.

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which funds the annual University of Michigan-administered survey, tells U.S. News the finding may point to something sinister.
"When the results came back this year, for the first time saying that 60 percent [use e-cigarettes to vape flavored liquids without nicotine], in a way I wasn't surprised," she says, "because that is the way manufacturers are going to be attracting the market for young people."

Volkow, echoing the sentiments of some health advocates and lawmakers, says "the flavors are very appealing and that will make the youth much more receptive to use the same device into the future for other things: delivering nicotine or [marijuana] or you can even use them for alcohol.

"So it's a very good marketing strategy to attract young people, to make them comfortable with these devices, then the next step of using it with a drug is much easier."

That claim is not the universal view. Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association trade group, bashed the suggestion that the booming industry – which largely self-imposed 18-year age restrictions as states passed legislation to catch up – would be trying to hook minors.

"Ms. Volkow should stop and think before making false and demeaning claims about thousands of small business owners who have no connections to the tobacco industry," he says.
"Teen smoking rates are at record lows that were unimaginable just five years ago," Conley says. "But instead of celebrating this public health achievement, activists are rushing to revise their talking points and find new evidence-free accusations to make."

Conley adds that "nicotine-free vapor products began to be produced approximately seven years ago because consumers were telling companies that they wished to not only stop smoking, but also quit nicotine use."

It's unclear if any high school students are vaping nicotine-free e-liquid as part of a strategy to quit smoking.

Conventional cigarette use continued to fall in the 2015 survey results. Only 5.5 percent of high school seniors reported daily cigarette use, down from 6.7 percent last year and 10.7 percent in 2010. The rates also fell among eighth- and 10th-grade respondents.

Though not statistically significant, the rate of past-month e-cigarette use fell from 17.1 to 16.2 percent among high school seniors and 16.2 to 14 percent among sophomores. Among eighth-grade students, past-month use ticked up from 8.7 percent to 9.5 percent, also not statistically significant.

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