The devices have gained rapid popularity among adults, due in no small part to the growth of advertising on TV and radio—media where tobacco advertising has been barred since the 1970s. The result has been an industry that has exploded in recent years, with more than 200 devicemakers projected to generate total sales of nearly $2 billion in 2013.
“The increased use of e-cigarettes by teens is deeply troubling,” said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden in a written 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.”
The survey also found the rate of those youth who said they used an e-cigarette in the last 30 days rose from 1.5% in 2011 to 2.8% in 2012. In total, 1.8 million middle and high school students tried e-cigarettes in 2012, with an estimated 160,000 of those students saying they never used a tobacco cigarette.
“This is actually very different than what we’ve seen in adults, where only a very small fraction of e-cig experimenters are nonsmokers,” CDC Office on Smoking and Health Director Dr. Tim McAfee said in an interview.
McAfee said the data seemed to indicate a rapid growth trend of e-cigarette use among young people, which he said was troubling given the fact so little was currently known about the possible health implications. “There’s simply no way to establish safety in this current environment,” McAfee said. “The person that’s inhaling the aerosol can’t know what’s in it currently.”
“Using an e-cigarette can begin kids on a lifelong addiction to nicotine and tobacco products,” said Paul Billings, senior vice president of advocacy and education for the American Lung Association. “These data show the urgent need for oversight of these products. The Obama administration must halt its delay and the FDA must propose meaningful regulation of these products to protect the public health.”
Electronic cigarettes are battery-powered devices that heat a nicotine solution, emitting a vapor. Proponents of the products contend their use has helped many smokers kick tobacco cigarettes, which they say are harmful compared with e-cigarettes.
McAfee said such claims were inconclusive and missed the point of tobacco cessation efforts. He said comparing the relative harm and safety of cigarette use and e-cigs is a false choice. “For a large majority of Americans, we take it for granted that we’re not going to be exposed to all of the thousands of toxins that are found in cigarette smoke,” McAfee said. “The bar isn’t cigarette smoke, the bar is clear air.”
Critics have pointed out e-cigarettes are currently unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and without that oversight the public has no way of knowing whether the products are safe.
The FDA has announced plans to issue rules on e-cigarettes later this year. Agency officials have reportedly conducted meetings with a number of e-cigarette makers to discuss a ban on online sales of the devices and applying age restrictions on buyers.
“These data show a dramatic rise in usage of e-cigarettes by youth, and this is cause for great concern as we don’t yet understand the long-term effects of these novel tobacco products,” FDA Center for Tobacco Products Director Mitch Zeller said in a written statement. “These findings reinforce why the FDA intends to expand its authority over all tobacco products and establish a comprehensive and appropriate regulatory framework to reduce disease and death from tobacco use.”
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