In a classic good-news-bad-news scenario, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that while teens were smoking fewer traditional cigarettes, the use of e-cigarettes and hookahs increased. Published April 14 in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the study found that three million middle and high school students were current users of e-cigarettes in 2015, up from 2.46 million in 2014.
“E-cigarettes are now the most commonly used tobacco product among youth, and use continues to climb,” CDC director Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, said in an agency news release.
Researchers used data from the National Youth Tobacco Survey collected from nearly 20,000 American middle and high school students from 2011 to 2015. Findings showed that the number of high school students who reported using an e-cigarette at least once a month jumped from 1.5 percent in 2011 to 16 percent in 2015. Middle schoolers using e-cigarettes rose from 0.6 percent in 2011 to 5.3 percent in 2015. The use of hookahs also increased from 4.1 percent to 7.2 percent among high school students and 1 percent to 2 percent among middle school students during the same time period.
Use of all other products, including traditional cigarettes, cigars, and pipes decreased in the 2011 to 2015 time period. Survey data showed that the number of middle and high school kids who said they smoked a cigarette in the last month dropped from 4.3 percent to 2.3 percent and from 15.8 percent to 9.3 percent, respectively.
However, the researchers noted that the rise in e-cigarette and hookah use was enough to make up for the decrease in the use of all other tobacco products. Overall, the total number of teens using tobacco products was unchanged from 2011 to 2015.
“Unfortunately, it was not much of a surprise and it was consistent with the evidence we have seen in previous years,” study leader Brian A. King, deputy director of research translation, CDC Office on Smoking and Health, told CNN. An earlier CDC report found that rates of e-cigarette use among middle and high schoolers tripled from 2013 to 2014.
King pointed to several factors as contributors to the growing popularity of e-cigarettes among teens, including the different flavors that make them so attractive. And although all but four states and the District of Columbia have age restrictions on the sale of the product, there is no restriction on buying them on the Internet.
“The fact that we have a flavored product that is easier to access and possibly cheaper has created a perfect storm to lead to increased use,” King said.
King also pointed to heavy advertisement in the media and the use of celebrities and trendy accessories to market e-cigarettes as boosting their appeal. Another contributing problem, he said, is the perception that they are safer than traditional cigarettes.
Numerous studies, however, suggest that the nicotine in e-cigarettes, just as in traditional tobacco products, could be harmful to teens’ developing brains.
“No form of youth tobacco use is safe,” said CDC director Frieden. “Nicotine is an addictive drug and use during adolescence may cause lasting harm to brain development.”
The study authors concluded that “given that the use of e-cigarettes is on the rise among middle and high school students and nicotine exposure from any source is dangerous for youths, it is critical that comprehensive tobacco control and prevention strategies for youths address all tobacco products and not just cigarettes.”