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Teens Now Smoke E-Cigarettes More Than Any Other Tobacco Product

The new generation of tobacco use looks a bit different.
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(Photo: TBEC Review/Flickr)

(Photo: TBEC Review/Flickr)

Suspect your school-age daughter or son is smoking? More than anything else, they're likely using electronic cigarettes. Middle and high schoolers seem to be rapidly replacing more traditional tobacco products, such as cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, with e-cigs, according to the latest data from United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although e-cigarettes may seem safer because they don't produce the same combustion products that regular cigarettes do, they still contain nicotine, which studies show is especially addictive to young people.

Last year, two million American high schoolers and 450,000 middle schoolers used an e-cigarette within 30 days of being surveyed, the CDC found. Since 2011, the overall number of sixth- through twelfth-graders who have used tobacco in the last 30 days stayed the same, at 4.6 million. However, the number of youthful e-cigarette users tripled between 2013 and 2014. In fact, 2014 was the first year since the CDC began collecting such data that kids' use of e-cigarettes outpaced any other tobacco product. Hookah also significantly gained in popularity between 2013 and 2014; it's now the second-most popular tobacco product among middle and high school students.

The CDC's findings emphasize how important it will be for researchers to study the long-term effects of e-cigarettes, which are relatively unknown compared to the risks of smoking combustible cigarettes, which have been studied for over 50 years. Although they may still feel new, e-cigs aren't a niche product anymore. They're the most popular nicotine delivery vehicle among the next generation of tobacco users.

The rising popularity of e-cigarettes and hookah might be a sign that teachers and doctors aren't getting the message across that it's dangerous to use any kind of nicotine product when you're young. Studies show that young people can get addicted to nicotine within just a few days. Evidence from studies of rats injected with nicotine suggests the chemical affects young brains more profoundly than it does older ones. Young tobacco users are also likely to think they can "smoke for a few years and then quit," but that's simply not true. Once people start using tobacco in their teen years, they are very likely to continue to do so when they're older. More than 80 percent of adult smokers started before the age of 19, according to the 2012 Surgeon General's Report. Out of every four teens who smokes now, only one will quit successfully later. One will die of tobacco-related causes.

In the past, campaigns aimed at preventing teen tobacco use understandably focused on cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco. That left products such as hookah and e-cigarettes free from the stigma those other products carried. It's time to make the stigma apply to everything that contains nicotine.