The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s annual youth tobacco survey shows that e-cigarette use among middle school and high school students tripled from 2013 to 2014.
Thirteen percent of high school students use the devices, more than 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 total) used tobacco in some form last year. Four hundred thousand more young people used a tobacco product last year. This increase was the first in many years, and is attributed in part to the increased use of e-cigarettes and hookah pipes.
In what experts cite as good news emerging from the report, the share of high school students who smoked traditional cigarettes declined from 2011 to 2014, falling from 16 percent to 9 percent, the Times reports. Teenagers’ use of cigars and pipes also fell. Some experts think this means that teenage smokers have taken up e-cigarettes to help them quit smoking. But others worry that e-cigarettes are a habit on their own and may also prove to be a gateway to the eventual use of traditional cigarettes.
A Westchester County, N.Y., teenager called e-cigarettes “the healthy alternative,” according to the Times. He started vaping, as puffing on e-cigarettes is called, to help him quit smoking. Many teenagers say they are using e-cigarettes to help them kick a cigarette or marijuana habit. Others, who had never smoked, said they wanted to be part of a popular activity or said they liked the taste of the vapor.
The nicotine liquid itself is a concern to the medical community. E-liquid comes in a variety of fruit and candy flavors, which appeal to very young children. Ingesting as little as a teaspoon of the liquid can be fatal to a small child. Currently, the liquid does not have to be packaged in childproof bottles, and e-cigarette users who are not aware of its dangers may leave the liquid where it’s accessible to children. Poison control centers have reported an increase in calls about nicotine poisoning.
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 can be put in place. Several years ago, few teenagers had even seen an e-cigarette but now many report the devices are almost as common in their schools as laptops.
Health statistics show that smoking is still the biggest cause of preventable death in the United States, with smoking-related illnesses claiming more than 480,000 lives a year. Many scientists say e-cigarettes, which deliver nicotine without the tar and other dangerous chemicals in cigarette smoke, hold the promise of being less harmful than traditional cigarettes, according to the Times. But because e-cigarettes are relatively new to the market, evidence about their long-term health effects is limited.
Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the CDC, worries about introducing an addictive substance like nicotine to a broad population of teenagers. “This is a really bad thing,” Frieden said, noting that research has found that nicotine harms the developing brain, according to the Times.