Health & Fitness

As the use of e-cigarettes rises among teens, experts urge caution

Electronic cigarettes have surpassed traditional smoking in popularity among teens, new research finds.
Electronic cigarettes have surpassed traditional smoking in popularity among teens, new research finds. The Associated Press

Even as traditional tobacco use among minors continues to fall, experts are concerned that many of a new generation face harmful nicotine addiction — through e-cigarettes.

While some doctors and parents see the vapor products as a “gateway” back to the bad old days of Camels and Marlboros behind the gym, others believe young people may stay dangerously hooked on the e-cigs themselves.

The latter scenario seemed supported by three studies released this week that show e-cigarette use surpassing the more traditional smoking among minors. Either way, experts express concern that decades of progress in weaning young smokers away from destructive behavior was being badly undermined.

Nearly 9 percent of eighth-graders said they’d used an e-cigarette in the previous month, while just 4 percent reported smoking a traditional cigarette, said a report released Tuesday by the National Institutes of Health.

“For years, kids were taught in school not to smoke,” noted Tom Foster, who owns Fidel’s Cigar Shop in Westport. “E-cigarettes have been promoted as a safe way to smoke. They started as disposable, but now they’re being marketed for long-term use. People are staying on these things.”

Physician Jennifer Lowry, chief of the section of clinical toxicology for Children’s Mercy hospital in Kansas City, agreed.

“They are actually starting with these, and the intent is to continue to smoke them. It can be harmful that way,” she said.

Since their introduction just eight years ago, e-cigarettes have become a multibillion dollar industry. Because they heat a nicotine liquid into a vapor in lieu of burning tobacco, e-cigs were originally marketed to smokers as a healthy way to kick the habit.

“Unfortunately, acutely and even chronically they could be even more harmful than regular cigarettes,” Lowry said. “They’re very new to the scene, so we don’t have decades of data to look at to say what kind of cancer you will have later on.”

For parents who discover their teens are smoking e-cigarettes, Lowry said they need to have the same conversation that they would about any other drug.

“The adolescent’s brain isn’t fully developed until 21 to 25 years of age,” she said. “We’re playing with neurotransmitters when they become addicted to nicotine.

“It is still a drug, a highly addictive drug, more so than many of the other ones that are out there. We don’t know really what the harm is going to be in the future, which is concerning.”

Data from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids indicated teen tobacco use has fallen by half, from 28 percent of high schoolers in 2000 to 12.7 percent in 2014.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention findings for 2013 projected 4.5 percent of students in high school and 1.1 percent of those in middle school using e-cigarettes in the past month.

The three studies out this week, however, found the CDC numbers far too low.

Michigan research, funded by NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, found use increased with age: About 16 percent of 10th-graders had tried an e-cigarette in the past month, and 17 percent of high school seniors. Regular smoking continued inching down, to 7 percent of 10th-graders and 14 percent of 12th-graders.

A Connecticut study also released Tuesday indicated yet higher e-cigarette numbers: one out of four high schoolers in the state using last year, with 18 percent having used them in the last month.

Researchers in Hawaii also found much higher rates, with 29 percent of teens reporting having used e-cigarettes, 12 percent in the last month. That study found e-cig use among teens doubling every year there since 2009.

The Hawaii study was published Monday online in the American Academy of Pediatrics journal, Pediatrics. The Connecticut results can be found in the Oxford Journals’ Nicotine and Tobacco Research.

“I worry that the tremendous progress that we’ve made over the last almost two decades in smoking could be reversed on us by the introduction of e-cigarettes,” said University of Michigan professor Lloyd Johnston, who leads the annual Monitoring the Future survey of more than 41,000 students.

At his tobacco shop, Foster said, “We carded for e-cigarettes and would not sell them to minors, even when you legally could. The idea that it has nicotine in it, which I know is a drug and is habit-forming, I wouldn’t sell them to kids.”

Both Kansas and Missouri this year banned sale of the products for residents under 18. The Food and Drug administration is weighing a similar federal measure.

“There’s a lot of components to the e-cigarettes that I think people just don’t know enough about,” Foster said. “Even as a retailer, we’re currently only as informed as what the manufacturers tell us. Having some independent factual data out there would be nice.”

Albert Weeks, 18, first tried cigarettes in early high school, but had made the switch to e-cigarettes by age 16.

“Probably not,” he said when asked if he thought e-cigs should be sold to minors. “It’s still smoke. You probably shouldn’t use nicotine until you’re older.”

The Star’s Robert A. Cronkleton and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

To reach Derek Cowsert, send email to

More on teens and drugs

Other findings from the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse survey:

▪ Marijuana use appeared to level off after recent increases, with 6.5 percent of eighth-graders reporting past-month use, 17 percent of 10th-graders and 21 percent of 12th-graders. Nearly 6 percent of 12th-graders reported daily use.

▪ Fewer teens are trying synthetic marijuana, highly dangerous drugs known by such names as K2 and Spice. About 6 percent of seniors said they had used fake pot this year, down from 8 percent last year and 11 percent in 2012.

▪ Reported abuse of prescription painkillers is dropping. Six percent of high school seniors reported using the narcotics without medical supervision in the past year, down from 9.5 percent in 2004.

▪ Nearly 1 in 5 12th-graders reported binge drinking, defined as five or more drinks in a row in the previous two weeks. That’s down from 1 in 4 high school seniors in 2009.

| The Associated Press