The percentage of middle and high school students who smoke electronic cigarettes more than doubled between 2011 and 2012, bringing to light questions about whether an item that is not currently regulated by the FDA and is touted as less harmful than conventional cigarettes may actually spur people to smoke the old-fashioned way.
In the first large-scale look at the use of electronic cigarettes — otherwise known as e-cigarettes — among children, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control polled 19,000 sixth through tweflth grade students in 2011, and another 25,000 students in the same age range in 2012.
Electronic cigarettes are battery-powered and deliver nicotine in aerosol form, and are touted by the companies who make them as a safer alternative to regular cigarettes. They began to appear on store shelves in 2006, but marketing of e-cigarettes has exploded in the last few years, according to the Associated Press.
The study, which was released by the CDC on Thursday, found that 10 percent of high school students said they'd smoked an e-cigarette in 2012, up from 4.7 percent in 2011. During the same time period, high school kids who reported smoking e-cigarettes within the last month rose to 2.8 percent from 1.5 percent in the previous year. E-cigarette use also doubled among middle school students between 2011 and 2012.
What's more, the researchers found that more than 76 percent of the middle and high school students surveyed who had used e-cigarettes within the last month had also smoked conventional cigarettes. When paired with the fact that 90 percent of adult smokers pick up the habit as teenagers, according to the CDC, officials worry that kids may be picking up an affinity for nicotine through e-cigarettes and then getting hooked on conventional cigarettes.
"The increased use of e-cigarettes by teens is deeply troubling," said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, in a statement. "Nicotine is a highly addictive drug. Many teens who start with e-cigarettes may be condemned to struggling with a lifelong addiction to nicotine and conventional cigarettes."
While e-cigarettes are not regulated by the FDA, the agency in 2011 announced its intent to regulate them as tobacco products rather than drug delivery devices, putting them in the same category as traditional cigarettes. More than 20 states have banned store sales of e-cigarettes to minors so far.
Further compounding the issue is the fact that e-cigarettes, unlike traditional cigarettes, can be advertised on television. The Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act of 1970 instilled stronger health warnings on cigarette packaging and banned TV ads for cigarettes, but e-cigarettes do not yet face that kind of regulation.
The World Health Organization has warned that the safety of e-cigarettes has not been scientifically demonstrated, and that "the testing of some of these products also suggests the presence of other toxic chemicals" and "there is no way for consumers to find out what is actually delivered by the product they have purchased."
A study released last month by France's National Consumer Institute found that, in testing the ingredients of 10 different models of e-cigarettes, they were "potentially carcinogenic" and could be as harmful as regular cigarettes because they contain about the same amount of formaldehyde. The country's health minister has said she intends to ban the use of e-cigarettes in public places and will restrict them among children under the age of 18.
With The Associated Press