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Electronic cigarette use among U.S. middle and high school students tripled in the past year. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has called the trend “alarming.” E-cigarettes are now the most popular “tobacco” product among teens, which worries public health officials because of new data emerging that will probably intensify the debate over whether e-cigarettes are helpful or hurtful for users.
Among high school students, e-cigarette use jumped significantly from 4.5 percent in 2013 to 13.4 percent in 2014, according to the CDC. The use rate was merely 1.5 percent in 2011. The data was gathered in the 2014 National Youth Tobacco Survey, which asked about current e-cigarette use, defined as “at least once in the past 30 day.
While health officials are concerned about the dramatic surge of electronic cigarette use considering the lack of knowledge of long term effects, they did have good news to report. During the same timeframe, use of regular cigarettes fell to 9.2 percent in 2014 from 12.7 percent in 2013, the largest year-over-year decline in over 10 years. In 2011, it was 15.8 percent.
If the use of the two types of cigarettes is combined, tobacco use for teens in high school grew to 24.6 percent last year. That statistic has health officials and advocates concerned that e-cigarettes will reverse reductions in smoking overall and create a generation of nicotine addicts who could eventually switch to more traditional cigarettes. They are not sure how many e-cigarette users were previous smokers, or how many tried e-cigarettes who would not have smoked cigarettes otherwise. However, psychology studies suggest that many teens are more likely to pick up e-cigarettes than would have tried traditional cigarettes.
Another concerning trend the data showed was the use of hookahs nearly doubled to 9.4 percent from 5.2 percent. Hookah smoking, which involves inhaling burned tobacco via a water pipe, creates a lot of the same health risks created by cigarette smoking.
According to the CDC, using a hookah for one hour involves 200 puffs. Smoking a traditional cigarette takes about 20 puffs. The smoke inhaled in a hookah session is about 90,000 milliliters, whereas from a cigarette only 500-600 milliliters are inhaled. Additionally, hookah usage has carbon monoxide and other agents not present in smokeless forms of nicotine use.
The CDC said almost half the high school students who used some form of tobacco product actually used more than one. Electronic cigarettes are now the most popular, but hookah use came in second. Cigarettes were in third place followed by cigars, smokeless tobacco and pipes.
The appeal of e-cigarettes and hookahs extends now to students in middle schools, according to the CDC data shows. In 2014, 3.9 percent of kids in grades six through eight admitted use of electronic cigarettes. That was triple the 1.1 percent in 2013. Hookah use among middle school students jumped to 2.5 percent in 2014 from 1.1 percent in 2013.
With traditional cigarette use declining, the big tobacco companies, including Lorillard Tobacco Co., Altria Group and Reynolds American Inc. began developing electronic cigarette brands. (Some are still made by independent companies, too.)
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates cigarettes, roll-your-own tobacco and smokeless tobacco. The agency has been trying to regulate e-cigarettes since 2009. , Legal challenges, the lack of data on health effects as well as other hurdles have slowed the effort. The FDA has recently been arguing that e-cigarettes should be regulated by them because they use nicotine. Many expect the agency to extend its authority to e-cigarettes, hookahs and other products this summer.
With their candy flavoring and seemingly innocent look – besides the desire to fit in and look cool, the fact that electronic cigarette use tripled for teens is not surprising. It will be interesting to see if the FDA does take control and try to quell their growth with tighter regulations.
By Dyanne Weiss