Those worried about the rise of e-cigarette use have another data point to point at today. According to the first government study on usage, teens and high school students are turning to e-cigarettes over traditional smoking. Traditional tobacco use continues to plummet, but the number of e-cigarette users marches higher.
Health advocates have long been worried that e-cigarettes would be used as a gateway to traditional smoking, but the data is not pointing to that. Instead, e-cigarettes are pulling in users that wouldn’t traditionally smoke, due to the perception they are healthier than tobacco products.
The survey, released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, was released on Tuesday and measured drug and alcohol use among middle and high school students. Surveying more than 41,000 students from 377 schools, it was the first time it included e-cigarettes.
Though this is the first study from the institute, other studies point to a rapid increase in usage among teens. 17% of students in the 12th grade reported using an e-cigarette in the past month. That compares to 13.6% reporting tobacco use.
The numbers get more pronounced as you get younger. In the 10th grade, the e-cigarette rate was 16%, compared to 7% for tobacco. 8th grade students reported an e-cigarette rate of 8.7%, and a tobacco use of 4%.
Health Effects of E-Cigarettes
The rise of e-cigarettes have divided the health community. Some see it as the holy grail of tools to help the 19% of Americans still smoking quit. Other say they are nothing but a way to keep people smoking, and eventually lead back to tobacco. That theory has not been borne out in the data. People using just e-cigarettes are not likely to make the jump.
Another concern among health experts is nicotine consumption. Opponents of e-cigarettes contend nicotine can be harmful for brain development, and could lead to addictive behaviors.
What is worrisome is the lack of long-term health studies on a variety of the devices. Marketing and commercialization has far outstripped the science. In 10 states, minors are allowed to buy e-cigarettes. Communities of modders have sprung up to increase the concentration of nicotine discharged. All of this has turned the market into an electronic wild west.
The industry is backed up by science on the question of a gateway to tobacco, and so far, no major health impacts. Regulators are slow walking towards new rules to ban sales to minors.
Complete data on teen usage won’t be known until sometime next year, when the CDC releases its 2014 figures.