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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press Electronic cigarettes and accessories are displayed at a store in Chicago. A government survey released Thursday shows a dramatic increase in teens puffing electronic cigarettes and hookahs.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 9:20 am

Teen smoking falls as e-cigarette use triples

Washington Post

WASHINGTON – The number of middle and high school students using electronic cigarettes tripled between 2013 and 2014, according to government figures released Thursday, a startling increase that public health officials fear could reverse decades of efforts combating the scourge of smoking.

The popularity of e-cigarettes among teenagers now eclipses traditional cigarettes, the use of which has fallen to the lowest level in years.

Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the spike in e-cigarette use shocking.

“It’s a really bad thing, and it is subjecting another generation of our children to an addictive substance,” he said in an interview, adding that any type of nicotine exposure can harm the teenage brain and that some e-cigarette smokers undoubtedly will go on to use traditional cigarettes.

Not everyone sees such cause for alarm in the new numbers.

“The CDC should really be jumping for joy at the fact that smoking rates are declining. This is a huge success,” said Michael Siegel, a professor and tobacco control specialist at Boston University’s School of Public Health. “Instead, they are using this as another opportunity to demonize e-cigarettes.”

Siegel said he agrees that minors shouldn’t have access to any tobacco product. But he said the CDC numbers suggest that rather than serving as a gateway to cigarette smoking, e-cigarettes actually might be diverting teens from traditional cigarettes, which still account for nearly a half-million tobacco-related deaths in the United States each year.

Questions abound

At the heart of the public health debate over e-cigarettes lies a series of unanswered questions: Are e-cigarettes unequivocally less harmful than tar-laden, chemical-filled tobacco cigarettes, as many people assume? Will they prove to be a healthier alternative that helps people avoid cigarette smoking and reduces tobacco-related deaths? Or are they simply devices that could undermine decades of public health efforts?

Siegel said it “shouldn’t take a rocket scientist” to figure out that “vaping” is safer than smoking, given that the liquids used in e-cigarettes involve no combustion and very few chemicals. Likewise, Cabrera said regulators shouldn’t “lose perspective about the potential” for e-cigarettes to eliminate harm caused by smoking cigarettes.

But plenty of uncertainty remains. A study published this week in the journal Tobacco Control, for instance, found that the chemicals used to flavor e-cigarettes could prove unsafe when inhaled over time. Public health officials say far more research is needed, given how little data exist on the long-term effects of e-cigarettes.

Experimentation

This much seems certain from Thursday’s results, based on an annual survey of 22,000 students around the country: Teens are experimenting as much as ever. Roughly a quarter of high school students and nearly 8 percent of middle school students still report having used a tobacco product at least once during the past 30 days.

But between 2013 and 2014, the findings say, e-cigarette use among high school students had increased from 4.5 percent to 13.4 percent. Usage also more than tripled among middle school students, from 1.1 to 3.9 percent.

During that same period, the use of hookahs – water pipes used to smoke specially made tobacco – roughly doubled for middle and high school students, equaling and eclipsing the use of regular cigarettes, respectively.

Meanwhile, the use of conventional cigarettes sank to the lowest levels in years. According to the CDC, 9.2 percent of high school students reported smoking a cigarette over the past month, compared with 12.7 percent a year earlier. Middle school students’ cigarette use dropped to 2.5 percent from 2.9 percent.

FDA regulation

While some people might see that as good news, anti-tobacco advocates and public health officials remain wary.

“The drop in cigarette use is historic, with enormous public health significance,” Myers said. But, he quickly added, “the explosion of e-cigarette use among kids means these products are being taken up in record numbers with totally unknown long-term consequences that could potentially undermine all the progress we’ve made.”

Last April, the Food and Drug Administration announced plans to begin regulating e-cigarettes, now part of a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States. The agency said it wants to force manufacturers to curb sales to minors, place health-warning labels on their products and disclose the ingredients in e-cigarettes. The FDA’s initial proposals stopped short of halting online e-cigarette sales, restricting television advertising or banning candy and fruit flavorings – chocolate, cotton candy, passion fruit, pina colada and hundreds of others – that critics say appeal to young smokers.

A year later, the FDA has yet to finalize any new regulations involving e-cigarettes, though its top tobacco official said in an interview Thursday that doing so remains “our highest priority.”

Schools’ efforts

Thursday’s findings came as little surprise to many educators around the country.

Patricia Sheffer, superintendent of Union County Public Schools in Kentucky, grew so frustrated this year over the dozens of incidents of students being caught with e-cigarettes that last month, she sent a recorded message to district parents and posted a plea on Facebook asking for help cracking down on the problem.

The K-9 dogs that perform a sweep of the schools about once a month also are being trained to sniff out e-cigarettes, she said.

“It’s just growing at such a rapid pace,” said Sheffer, who worries about the various substances students might be smoking in the devices. “I thought, ‘We have to take a stand.’â ¯”

The Haywood County School District in North Carolina has begun classifying e-cigarettes as drug paraphernalia rather than as normal cigarettes, in the hope that harsher penalties will discourage students from bringing them to campus.

“It was to send a message that we don’t want it,” Associate Superintendent Bill Nolte said.