“The increased use of e-cigarettes by teens is deeply troubling,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said in announcing findings from the National Youth Tobacco Survey. “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.”
E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that look like cigarettes but do not burn tobacco. Rather, they deliver nicotine, flavor and other chemicals in the form of a vapor. A starter kit, which typically includes two e-cigarettes, extra batteries and various nicotine cartridges, can cost $20 to $200. Because of the limited research into e-cigarette use, their risks and benefits remain uncertain and subject to widespread debate.
What’s more certain is their steady growth in popularity among adults and, according to the CDC survey, young people.
The survey found that the percentage of high school students who said they had used an e-cigarette jumped from 4.7 percent in 2011 to 10 percent in 2012. Nearly 3 percent of those students said they had used an e-cigarette in the past 30 days, up from 1.5 percent a year earlier. Use also doubled among middle school students, the CDC reported.
All told, more than 1.78 million middle and high school students nationwide had tried e-cigarettes in 2012, the agency said.
Perhaps most troubling for public health advocates, the survey found that more than three-quarters of middle and high school students who had used e-cigarettes within the past month also had smoked conventional cigarettes during the same period. About 1 in 5 middle school students who reported using e-cigarettes said they had never tried conventional cigarettes.
The CDC’s findings are in line with a more recent survey conducted in Florida that found that more than 4 percent of middle-schoolers and 12 percent of high-schoolers had tried e-cigarettes — figures that have risen dramatically over the past two years.
Big U.S. tobacco companies have begun scooping up e-cigarette manufacturers with an eye toward a not-so-distant future, when, some analysts say, sales of e-cigarettes could eclipse those of conventional cigarettes. This year alone, tobacco giants such as Lorillard, Altria and Reynolds have begun wading into the e-cigarette market. E-cigarette use also has boomed in Europe in recent years.
Anti-smoking activists say that the rise in the popularity has happened in part because the devices are largely unregulated and cultivate an image as a cooler, less harmful alternative to regular cigarettes.