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Iowa Youth Survey: Teen Drinking Decreasing While Vaping, Suicidal Thoughts On The Rise

Iowa teens are drinking less alcohol, their electronic cigarette use is increasing and more youth are having thoughts about suicide, according to the latest Iowa youth health survey which samples middle school and high school students’ behavior every couple of years.
Data from the 2018 Iowa Youth Survey that samples students in grades 6, 8 and 11 show 20 percent of 11th graders surveyed say they drank alcohol at least once over a 30-day period, which is a 6 percent drop from the 2016 survey.

But the survey says 21 percent of 6th, 8th and 11th graders have thought about killing themselves in the last year and 10 percent have made a plan to do so. The latter is up from 7 percent in 2012.

Iowa Youth Survey Director Pat McGovern said the increase is alarming.

“It’s something that was almost a punch in my stomach when I looked, that there’s so much more work that needs to be done,” McGovern said.

McGovern said there could be a lot of things playing into it, like mental health and social media, but it’s hard to point out a specific cause. He said health officials will focus on raising awareness in schools about suicide and will look into school districts and counties where this seems to be more of a problem.

Data also showed fewer high school students are smoking cigarettes, but vaping is on the rise. In 2016, 9 percent of 11th graders included in the survey said they’ve vaped.

In the latest survey, about 23 percent of 11th graders reported they’ve used an electronic cigarette like a vape-pen, JUUL or hookah-pen at least once over a 30-day period.

Garin Buttermore, a community health consultant with the Iowa Department of Public Health, says this mirrors a national decline in interest in combustible cigarettes, while electronic cigarettes pick up traction.

“That has taken hold. Young people haven’t been interested in ‘smoking’," he said. "But the vaping is the new hip trend, it’s 'cool'.”

Buttermore says health officials have been working to educate youth about harmful chemicals that e-cigarettes produce. He says Iowa health providers ask patients about their tobacco use at every check-up.

Iowa’s Department of Public Health collected more than 70,000 survey responses from students across the state.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.