Electronic cigarettes have surpassed traditional smoking in popularity among teens, according to an annual drug use study released Tuesday by the National Institutes of Health.
Even as tobacco smoking by teens dropped to new lows, use of e-cigarettes reached levels that surprised researchers. The findings marked the survey's first attempt to measure the use of e-cigarettes by people that young.
"I worry that the tremendous progress that we've made over the last almost two decades in smoking could be reversed on us by the introduction of e-cigarettes," said University of Michigan professor Lloyd Johnston, who leads the annual Monitoring the Future survey of more than 41,000 students.
Nearly 9 percent of eighth-graders said they had used an e-cigarette in the previous month, while just 4 percent reported smoking a traditional cigarette, said the report.
Researchers found that use increased with age. About 16 percent of 10th-graders and 17 percent of high school seniors had tried an e-cigarette in the past month. Regular smoking continued inching down, the report added, to 7 percent of 10th-graders and 14 percent of 12th-graders.
E-cigarettes often are described as a less dangerous alternative for regular smokers who can't or don't want to kick the habit. The battery-powered devices produce vapor infused with potentially addictive nicotine but without the same chemicals and tar of tobacco cigarettes.
The survey didn't ask about repeat use, or whether teens were just experimenting with something new. But between 4 percent and 7 percent of students who tried e-cigarettes said they had never smoked a tobacco cigarette, noted University of Michigan professor Richard Miech, a study senior investigator.
"They must think that e-cigarettes are fundamentally different," he said.
E-cigarettes began to appear in the U.S. in 2006 but this was the first year that the Monitoring the Future survey asked teens about them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has estimated that during 2013, 4.5 percent of high school students had tried e-cigarettes during the prior month, a tripling since 2011.
The CDC reported last week that 10 states permit the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. The Food and Drug Administration has proposed regulating e-cigarettes, including banning sales to minors; there is no timetable for final rules.
The Associated Press