While traditional smoking is going out of style among U.S. high school students, e-cigarettes use is rapidly rising.
According to federal data released last week, use of the electronic devices among middle and high school students tripled from 2013 to 2014, while use of regular tobacco decreased. At 13% of this population, more teens are now using e-cigs than traditional cigarettes.
According to the report, about a quarter of all high school students and 8% of middle schoolers used tobacco in some form last year, contributing to an overall rise in young people using any form of tobacco product in 2014. This is the first increase in years.
But the report also found that tobacco smoking among high schoolers had declined significantly, from 16% in 2011 to 9% in 2014, suggesting that some teen smokers may be using e-cigs to quit.
Policymakers remain uncertain how to regulate e-cigarettes. Scientists do agree that the devices, which deliver nicotine without the added tar and other harmful chemicals, are likely less dangerous than tobacco cigarettes, which kill an estimated 480,000 Americans a year.
But experts are concerned about the growing popularity of e-cigs among teens, since their potential long-term health effects are still unknown. In interviews, teens said that in the last year or so “vaping,” the term for smoking an e-cig, had become almost as common at school as laptops. A 15-year-old sophomore at a school in Westchester, N.Y., estimated that 70% of his friends now vape, calling it “the healthy alternative taking over my school.”
Many students said they were using the devices to quit smoking cigarettes or marijuana, while others said they just enjoy the taste. E-cigs are increasingly marketed to teens, with flavors like “Unicorn Puke” and “Hawk Sauce,” and some brands are endorsed by popular rappers and other celebrities.
Selling e-cigs to minors is illegal in most states and the Food and Drug Administration proposed last year to make it a national ban. But many vape shops have relaxed policies, and teens can easily purchase the devices online simply by clicking “yes” to verify they are over 18.
Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted a rise in e-cig use by young people, prompting anti-tobacco advocates to warn that the devices would “normalize” smoking and contribute to a resurgence in tobacco use by getting young people hooked on nicotine.
“This is a really bad thing,” said CDC director Dr. Thomas R. Frieden. “This is another generation being hooked by the tobacco industry. It makes me angry.”
But the more recent numbers show that tobacco smoking among teenagers is declining faster than it has in years, dropping by 25% between 2013 and 2014. The pattern seems to suggest that the devices may not be a “gateway” to cigarettes, as anti-tobacco advocates predicted, and may instead be helping reduce youth smoking.
“They’re not a gateway in, and they might be accelerating the gateway out,” said David B. Abrams, director of the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies.
Many teenagers agree, describing vaping as “an entirely different culture” from cigarette smoking. “E-cigarettes appeal less towards the stereotypical longhaired stoners, and more towards sweatshirt-blue-jeans Silicon Valley programmer,” said Kenny, a high school senior from Florida. “You can compare them to Apple computers.”