New survey results reveal a new challenge in the on-going battle against teen smoking.
According to the National Youth Tobacco Survey, the use of e-cigarettes among high school students has doubled, from 5 percent in 2011 to 10 percent in 2012. Usage among middle school students also has doubled, increasing to 2.7 percent from 1.4 percent the previous year.
In addition, the survey revealed that among teenagers who currently use e-cigarettes, 76 percent are smoking regular cigarettes. Federal health officials have noticed.
“We are worried that e-cigarettes will help kids overcome their inhibitions and re-normalize smoking and undermine the progress we have made [in reducing youth smoking],” said Dr. Tim McAfee, director of the Centers for Disease Control’s Office on Smoking and Health. “There is no upside to teens being exposed to e-cigarettes.”
This trend is especially troubling for Indiana, one of the heaviest smoking states in the country. Indiana has the highest rate (14 percent) of older teens and young adults, ages 18-25, who have started smoking in the last year, and the 11th worst rate (7 percent) of adolescents, ages 12-17, who have lit up in the last 12 months.
E-cigarettes use a heating element, powered by a re-chargeable battery, to transform a liquid into a vapor, which then is inhaled. The liquid contains nicotine and often is flavored with fruit, mint or chocolate. E-cigarettes look like a regular cigarette or cigar, although some models are made to look like a pen or even a USB thumb drive to mask their true identity.
A new Indiana law bans the sale of e-cigarettes to people under the age of 18. State Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, who authored the bipartisan legislation with two other Republicans and three Democrats, explained, “Given their addictive nature, I believe that e-cigarettes should be subject to the same laws as regular cigarettes when it comes to minors.”
Despite the law, e-cigarettes are still sold online, increasing their easy availability to youth. A national organization battling teen smoking notes online sales benefit from marketing using celebrities and YouTube videos depicting e-cigarettes as hip and glamorous. One publicity campaign, for example, includes a cartoon pitchman named, “Mr. Cool.”
“This explosion of e-cigarette marketing threatens to undo decades of efforts to deglamorize smoking to kids,” said Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “The new CDC data show their marketing is enticing kids to start what could become a lifelong addiction to tobacco.”
The trade association for e-cigarettes, the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, issued a statement, “Electronic cigarettes should not be sold or marketed to minors.” The association also says e-cigarettes are safer for adults than tobacco cigarettes, providing a hit of nicotine without the toxins and other dangerous chemicals present in regular smokes. The industry group says the provision of nicotine through an e-cigarette is no different than a person who enjoys a cup of coffee for a dose of caffeine.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rebuts those claims, saying the safety of e-cigarettes has not been verified in clinical trials. The FDA this month is expected to propose the first-ever federal regulations of e-cigarettes, while the CDC already offers a warning to teenagers.
“We are worried about the adolescent use of nicotine because the adolescent brain is uniquely susceptible to addiction,” said McAfee of the CDC. “And nicotine is harmful to their brain development.”
And their lives. According to the Indiana State Department of Health, an e-cigarette cartridge can contain the same amount of nicotine as one-and-a-half packs of cigarettes — a dosage that can be lethal to teenagers who use e-cigarettes improperly.
Even though Indiana has banned the sale of e-cigarettes to minors and FDA regulations are forthcoming, parents need to remain aware of the growing usage of e-cigarettes by teenagers.
While smoking is advancing through technology, old fashioned communication from parents and other caring adults still provides the best chance for preventing youth from lighting up.
Bill Stanczykiewicz is president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. He can be reached at email@example.com.