A new government report has shown that the use of electronic cigarettes has tripled among American high school students between 2013 and 2014, raising concerns that the fight against teen smoking is failing.
Although there was a reduction in the proportion of students who regularly smoked traditional cigarettes, from 15.8% to 9.2% between 2011 and 2014, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say this is has been somewhat offset by the increase in e-cigarette use. The percentage of high school students using e-cigarettes has risen from 1.5% in 2011 to 13.4% in 2014.
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According to the federal data, E-cigarettes are now the most popular tobacco product among high school students. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say these devices can be categorised as tobacco products because they contain nicotine.
The appeal of e-cigarettes also extends to middle school students, with the CDC data showing that 3.9% of grade six to eight students also used the devices regularly in 2014, which was a much higher proportion than the amount who used traditional cigarettes or hookahs (2.5%).
This increase in e-cigarette use has meant the overall use of tobacco products has remained essentially flat. In 2014, almost a quarter (24.6%) of students in the ninth to twelfth grade were regularly using a tobacco product, which translates as more than 3.7 million and among middle school students, 7.7% were using a tobacco product, which translates as 910,000.
With their colorful designs and wide range of appealing flavors, many public health experts believe the e-cigarette is the ideal device for getting teenagers addicted to nicotine and some think the devices are becoming a “gateway drug” that encourages young people to use traditional cigarettes, cigars or other unhealthy products.
However, Michael Siegel, Health Sciences Professor at Boston University says that public health experts are drawing the wrong conclusion from the data.
“The CDC should be celebrating that we're seeing a decline in youth smoking,” says Siegel, who adds that if e-cigarette use was a gateway to using traditional cigarettes, the CDC data would have shown an increase in their use.
“We're getting kids off tobacco,” he says. “That's the goal.”
The FDA has been trying to introduce the regulation of e-cigarettes since 2009, but this has been prevented by legal challenges and a paucity of evidence demonstrating the actual health effects of the devices.
However, Mitch Zeller, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products says: “These staggering increases in such as short time underscore why FDA intends to regulate these additional products to protect public health.”