The gateway smoke: e-cigarette usage is up among youth

Tempting flavors, a celebrity fan base, and a reputation for being a healthy alternative have likely contributed to electronic cigarettes’ popularity among

adults and, as a recent study suggests, children and teens.

E-cigarette use is on the rise among American teens, according to a recently released CDC report, National Youth Tobacco Survey. The specifics? One in ten high schoolers used e-cigarettes in 2012 — and almost three in 100 middle-schoolers have tried the increasingly popular cigs. That rate is nearly double the figure reported in 2011.

While touted as a healthier alternative to traditional cigarettes, and as an option for adults trying to quit, the e-cigarette is far from safe. The cigarette contains a solution including nicotine, obtained from tobacco leaves, which is heated and transformed into an inhalable vapor. The full scope of damaging chemicals found in traditional cigarettes aren’t present, but the addictive nicotine still is. An analysis by the FDA in 2009 discovered that e-cigarettes did include carcinogens and toxic chemicals.

Of particular concern: Some kids who haven’t tried traditional cigarettes are trying e-cigarettes. Though the majority of teens who have tried them have also tried regular cigarettes, one in five middle schoolers who have tried e-cigarettes have never tried traditional cigarettes. Plus, teens aren’t trying the electronic cigarettes only one time.

In 2013, nearly three percent of high school students said they had used them within the past thirty days, up from 1.5 percent  in 2011. The figure for middle-schoolers jumped from .6 percent to 1.1 percent. Says Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, e-cigarettes may be a “gateway to nicotine addiction and use of other tobacco products.”

By now it’s common knowledge that tobacco companies market to children in the hopes of obtaining lifelong customers. (Remember cartoon Joe Camel?) Traditional cigarette companies are now cashing in on the e-cigarette craze too: America’s top three tobacco companies have become involved in e-cigarettes within the last 16 months, reports USA Today. The FDA plans to begin regulation as soon as this fall, while some cities have already begun restricting e-cigarette sales.

Ten percent of high school students smoke e-cigarettes. Most teens who have tried them have also smoked regular cigarettes. From M Hooper.

CDC Director Tom Frieden calls the study “deeply troubling,” saying that many of those electronic-cigarette-smoking teens may be “condemned to struggling with a lifelong addiction to nicotine and conventional cigarettes.” E-cigarettes, which are often available for purchase in traditional tobacco shops, drug stores, bodegas, and online, are not currently regulated by the government (only those marketed as therapeutic products are regulated), and their health implications are not known.

Mitch Zeller, director of FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, said that “We don’t yet understand the long-term effects of these novel tobacco products,” noting that the study underscores the FDA’s need to establish regulations. There is some positive news: as health advocates call out for regulation, the FDA is considering banning online e-cigarette sales, reviewing advertising standards, and debating setting the legal minimum age for purchasing them.

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