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E-cigarette Use up Sharply Among Teenagers

Apr 21, 2015

Federal data released last week reveals that e-cigarette use among middle school and high school students tripled from 2013 to 2014.

The share of high school students who use the devices is 13 percent, more than those who smoke traditional cigarettes, the New York Times reports. About a quarter of the country’s high school students and 8 percent of middle school students (4.6 million young people total) used tobacco in some form last year. Four hundred thousand more young people used a tobacco product last year, the first increase in tobacco use in many years. The increase is due in part to the increased use of e-cigarettes and hookah pipes.

The share of high school students who smoked traditional cigarettes declined substantially from 2011 to 2014, falling to 9 percent from 16 percent, the Times reports. Cigar and pipe use fell too. Some experts think this may mean teenage smokers are using e-cigarettes to help them quit smoking. But others worry that e-cigarettes may prove to be a gateway to the eventual use of traditional cigarettes.

Smoking still ranks as the biggest cause of preventable death in the United States, claiming more than 480,000 lives a year. Many scientists feel that e-cigarettes, which deliver nicotine to users but not the dangerous tar and other chemicals in cigarette smoke, are probably less harmful than traditional cigarettes, according to the Times. But because e-cigarettes are so new, evidence on their long-term health effects is limited and regulators are uncertain how dangerous they may prove to be. Experts worry that the e-cigarette habit is taking wide hold before adequate rules can be formulated.

A teenager from Westchester County, N.Y., who spoke to the Times, referred to e-cigarettes as “the healthy alternative.” He said he started vaping—puffing on an e-cigarette —to help him quit smoking. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took its first steps toward regulating e-cigarettes, but the process is slow, and many experts worry that the nicotine habit is forming far faster than rules are being written. Some teenagers say that e-cigarettes are almost as common in their schools as laptops. Several years ago, few had even seen the devices.

Some teenagers said they were using e-cigarettes to help them kick a cigarette or marijuana habit. Others said they liked being part of a popular activity or said they liked the taste. The nicotine liquid comes in a variety of fruit and candy flavors. And this is a cause of concern in the medical community: many e-liquid flavors appeal to very young children, for whom as little as a teaspoon of the liquid can be fatal. The liquid does not have to be packaged in childproof bottles, and e-cigarette users who are not aware of the danger may leave the liquid where it’s accessible to children. Poison control centers report an increase in calls about nicotine poisoning.

Nicotine is an addictive substance and health experts worry about introducing it to a broad population of teenagers. “This is a really bad thing,” said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Frieden notes that research has found that nicotine harms the developing brain, according to the Times.

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