Tobacco Product Use and Associated Factors Among Middle and High School Students - National Youth Tobacco Survey, United States, 2021

MMWR Surveill Summ. 2022 Mar 11;71(5):1-29. doi: 10.15585/mmwr.ss7105a1.


Problem/condition: Commercial tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable disease, disability, and death in the United States. Most tobacco product use begins during adolescence. In recent years, tobacco products have evolved to include various combusted, smokeless, and electronic products.

Period covered: 2021.

Description of system: The National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS) is an annual, cross-sectional, school-based, self-administered survey of U.S. middle school (grades 6-8) and high school (grades 9-12) students. A three-stage cluster sampling procedure is used to generate a nationally representative sample of U.S. students attending public and private schools. NYTS is the only nationally representative survey of U.S. middle and high school students that focuses exclusively on tobacco use patterns and associated factors. NYTS provides data to support the design, implementation, and evaluation of comprehensive youth tobacco use prevention and control programs and to guide tobacco regulatory activities. Since 2019, NYTS has been administered electronically via tablet computers. Because of emergency COVID-19 protocols that were in place across the United States during the 2021 NYTS fielding window (January 18-May 21, 2021), the 2021 survey was administered using a web URL to allow participation by eligible students learning under varying instructional models (in-person, distance/virtual, and hybrid). In total, 50.8% of student respondents reported completing the survey in a school building or classroom and 49.2% at home or some other place. CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) analyzed data from the 2021 NYTS to assess tobacco product use patterns and associated factors among U.S. middle and high school students. Overall, 20,413 students (out of 25,149 sampled students; student response rate: 81.2%) completed the questionnaire from 279 schools (out of 508 sampled schools; school response rate: 54.9%). The overall response rate, defined as the product of the student and school response rates, was 44.6%. The sample was weighted to represent approximately 11.97 million middle school students and 15.44 million high school students. Students with missing information about grade level were excluded from the school-level analyses (n = 135).

Results: In 2021, an estimated 34.0% of high school students (5.22 million) and 11.3% of middle school students (1.34 million) reported ever using a tobacco product (i.e., electronic cigarettes [e-cigarettes], cigarettes, cigars, smokeless tobacco, hookahs, pipe tobacco, heated tobacco products, nicotine pouches, and bidis [small brown cigarettes wrapped in a leaf]). Current (past 30-day) use of a tobacco product was 13.4% for high school students (2.06 million) and 4.0% for middle school students (470,000). E-cigarettes were the most commonly currently used tobacco product, cited by 11.3% of high school students (1.72 million) and 2.8% of middle school students (320,000), followed by cigarettes, cigars, smokeless tobacco, hookahs, nicotine pouches, heated tobacco products, and pipe tobacco. Current use of any tobacco product was reported by 14.2% of students identifying as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) (versus 7.9% of heterosexual); 18.9% of students identifying as transgender (versus 8.2% of not transgender); and 14.2% of students reporting severe psychological distress (versus 5.5% with no distress). Among students who currently used each respective tobacco product, frequent use (on ≥20 days of the past 30 days) ranged from 17.2% for nicotine pouches to 39.4% for e-cigarettes. Among current users of any tobacco product, 79.1% reported using a flavored tobacco product; by product, e-cigarettes were the most commonly used flavored tobacco product. Among current users of any tobacco product, the most commonly reported source of access was from a friend (32.8%). Among students who currently used e-cigarettes, 53.7% used a disposable device, 28.7% used a prefilled/refillable pod or cartridge device, 9.0% used a tank or mod system (a system that can be customized by the user), and 8.6% did not know the device type. Among students who had ever used e-cigarettes, the most common reason for first trying them was "a friend used them" (57.8%); among current e-cigarette users, the most commonly cited reason for current use was "I am feeling anxious, stressed, or depressed" (43.4%). Among all middle and high school students, 75.2% reported past-year recognition of any antitobacco public education campaign ads. Exposure to marketing or advertising for any tobacco product was reported by 75.7% of students who had contact with an assessed potential source of tobacco product advertisements or promotions (going to a convenience store, supermarket, or gas station; using the Internet; watching television or streaming services or going to the movies; or reading newspapers or magazines). Among students who reported using social media, 73.5% had ever seen e-cigarette-related content. Among all students, perceiving "no" or "little" harm from intermittent tobacco product use was highest for e-cigarettes (16.6%) and lowest for cigarettes (9.6%). Among students who currently used any tobacco product, 27.2% had experienced cravings during the past 30 days; 19.5% reported wanting to use a tobacco product within 30 minutes of waking. Moreover, 65.3% of students who currently used tobacco products were seriously thinking about quitting the use of all products, and 60.2% had stopped using all products for ≥1 day because they were trying to quit during the past 12 months.

Interpretation: In 2021, approximately one in 10 U.S. middle and high school students (9.3%) had used a tobacco product during the preceding 30 days. By school level, this represented more than one in eight high school students (13.4%) and approximately one in 25 middle school students (4.0%). E-cigarettes were the most commonly used tobacco product in 2021. Tobacco product use was higher among certain subpopulations, such as those identifying as LGB or transgender, or those reporting psychological distress. Importantly, approximately two thirds of students who currently used tobacco products were seriously thinking about quitting. However, factors that might continue to promote tobacco product use among U.S. youths, such as the availability of flavors, access to tobacco products, exposure to tobacco product marketing, and misperceptions about harm from tobacco product use, remained prevalent in 2021.

Public health action: The continued monitoring of all forms of youth tobacco product use and associated factors through surveillance efforts including NYTS is important to the development of public health policy and action at national, state, and local levels. The 2021 NYTS was successfully administered during the COVID-19 pandemic using a web URL to allow participation by eligible students learning under varying instructional models. As a result of these modifications to the fielding procedures, any comparison of results between 2021 NYTS findings with previous years, including the direct attribution of any potential changes in tobacco product use, is not possible. Parents, educators, youth advocates, and health care providers can help protect youths from the harms of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. In addition, the comprehensive and sustained implementation of evidence-based tobacco control strategies, combined with FDA's regulation of tobacco products, is important for reducing all forms of tobacco product use among U.S. youths.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • COVID-19*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems*
  • Female
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Nicotiana
  • Pandemics
  • Students / psychology
  • Tobacco Products*
  • Tobacco Use
  • United States / epidemiology