Teen smoking rates haven’t budged, and the percentage of high schoolers who have tried inhaling nicotine from electronic cigarettes—known as vaping—has nearly doubled over the past year.
More teens are also heading for hookah lounges to smoke flavored tobacco, as well as smoking cigars, even though they’re not legally allowed to smoke tobacco until they turn 18.
This bad news, reported Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, puts even more pressure on the government to strictly regulate e-cigarettes and other forms of tobacco as stringently as they regulate cigarettes.
Celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy and Charlie Sheen have been photographed smoking e-cigarettes in ads. About half of the states have laws that prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. Massachusetts hasn’t yet passed proposed legislation, but several towns and cities have already banned the sale to anyone under 18 including Boston, Somerset, Saugus, Canton, and North Adams.
Unfortunately, e-cigarettes are cheaper, easier to access, and marketed more heavily to young people than traditional cigarettes, which fuels the teen vaping trend according to the CDC’s senior scientific advisor Brian King.
New rules are expected to be issued within the next few months by the US Food and Drug Administration, but no one knows how tough they will be.
About 90 percent of adult smokers become addicted to tobacco by the time they finish high school, so public health experts believe efforts to keep teens from lighting up could be the ultimate solution to solving the nation’s smoking problem once and for all.
The CDC report was based on a 2012 survey of nearly 25,000 middle and high school students in the United States and found that e-cigarette use increased among middle school students from 0.6 percent in 2011 to 1.1 percent in 2012. The percentage of high school students smoking e-cigarettes increased in one year from 1.5 percent to 2.8 percent, and those smoking hookahs increased to 5.4 percent from 4.1 percent.
“These percentages may seen low, but they account for nearly 2 million students,” King said, many of whom mistakenly believe that e-cigarettes are harmless and that hookah use is safer than cigarettes. King stressed that the tobacco burned and inhaled from hookahs may deliver even more harmful carcinogens, and e-cigarettes are like the “wild, wild west” with no one knowing exactly what they contain.
“It’s tough to nail down the specific components that people inhale through the nicotine vapor since they haven’t been well studied,” King said, “but a few studies have found some potentially hazardous components.”
He also pointed to a recent animal study that found nicotine use could impair the development of the adolescent brain. Certain nerve cells that get “pruned” or cut back during the teenage years to enable efficient nerve connections in the brain’s higher reasoning centers may not get the necessary pruning if they’re exposed to nicotine.
Neurologists need to do more research to determine what, if any, impact this has on brain development.
Here’s a more established concern: Nicotine is highly addictive, and e-cigarettes could be a gateway product that leads to a regular cigarette habit.
Dr. Joseph DiFranza, a smoking researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, recently argued that e-cigarettes could be a valuable product that helps current smokers of traditional cigarettes to quit. But DiFranza—whose study 20 years ago lead to the banning of Joe Camel—has also advocated for raising the age of purchase for both cigarettes and e-cigarettes to 21 in order to help keep them out of the hands of teens.