Teen E-Cigarette Use is Up, but Smoking is Down – Should Vaping be getting the Credit or the Blame?

E-cigarette use across the board, no matter your age or your geographical location, has been rising steadily for the last few years. The devices, whether used as replacements for cigarettes or as aids to quit smoking altogether, are rightfully gaining such popularity, considering they present a still satisfying, yet much healthier alternative to cigarettes. A new study, however, is focusing on the teen use and how their popularity is beginning to rise rather quickly causing concern for our youth population.

According to the report from the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of teens using e-cigarettes tripled from 2013 to 2014. Out of the two million teens surveyed, 13.4 percent of high school students used e-cigarettes at some point in 2014, up from 4.5 percent in 2013 and 1.5 percent in 2011. Among the nearly half a million middle school students surveyed, e-cigarette use rose from 1.1 percent in 2013 to 3.9 percent in 2014.

The rise in use is not particularly surprising, when the device itself has experience a similar upturn in the adult population as well. According to Forbes Magazine, the e-cigarette industry is expected to rise 25% in sales each year until 2018. With this kind of general trend, seeing e-cig use popping up in the teen population is only natural.

The best news of this study, however, is the fact that students smoking tobacco has gone down significantly. Cigarette use over the same 2013 to 2014 period fell to 9.2 percent from 12.7 percent, which is the largest year to year decline in more than a decade.

Matthew Myers is the president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and he called the report's finding “stunning.” He said it was a welcome sign of progress against tobacco– a substance that kills 480,000 Americans a year. Though he is concerned of the potential nicotine addiction in teens, he recognizes the important decline in teen use. He says the findings, “represents a historic drop in cigarette use — the first time in history that we've seen cigarette use in high school youth below 10%.”

Of course, there is no way to really know if this sort of drop is connected to e-cigarettes, but it does seem likely. The problem is this sort of finding brings in to question the use of e-cigs as a gateway device, which is the exact opposite of what e-cigarettes are designed to do in the first place. E-cigs have demonstrated an amazing capacity for helping folks kick the tobacco habit in just the short amount of time they’ve been on the market. Unfortunately, if teens who never smoked regular cigarettes start vaping, it turns the device from a cessation method in to what critics consider a gateway to nicotine addiction.

Even if that is the case, the real question is would a teen who never smoked, but decided to vape, have tried a regular cigarette is vaping wasn’t an option? According to some studies, it appears the answer might be yes. A recent study in the journal BioMed Central Public Health showed a connection between teens who experiment with alcohol and those that experiment with e-cigarettes. The researchers suggest that e-cigs are more popular among youth who are more apt to experimentation. This means that it is likely that e-cigarettes may be providing these kids with a healthier alternative, to doing something really bad for themselves, that they might have done if e-cigs were not an option.

That is not by ANY MEANS to say that teens should vape. No one wants anyone to develop a nicotine addiction. Ultimately the goal whether you are anti- or pro-vape, is to keep kids from smoking, which is one major reason regulation is so important.

Currently 42 states have laws banning the sales of e-cigs to minors, but in this day and age all teens know the easiest way to purchase just about anything is the Internet. While many websites, especially reputable USA brands, have checks in place to safeguard against the sale of e-cig products to minors, studies are showing that the Internet is one of the most popular way that e-cigs are obtained by teens. If e-cigs really are so much easier to obtain than regular cigarettes, that could also account for a portion of the rise in teen use.

Phil Daman is the president of the e-cigarette industry group the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association and he agreed that the growing number of teens using e-cigarettes is “very concerning.”

“We want to make sure that youth don't have access to these products,” said Daman, “We've spent a lot of time and money lobbying in almost every state to ban sales to minors.”

That is why everyone is looking to the FDA for more answers. It was one year ago that they released their proposed regulations for e-cigarettes. While there are many problems with regulation, specifically how its cumbersome process will affect the smaller e-cig companies, the one thing all sides can agree on is a need for control on ban of youth sales. The FDA’s proposed rule would do just that.

“Every day that passes without FDA acting creates a greater public health crisis,” Myers said, noting that the FDA first announced its intention to regulate e-cigarettes in 2010. “Five years of bureaucratic delay is inexcusable.”

Of course, no one could have anticipated the near meteoric growth of e-cigs that has occurred in such a short time, making it a hard product to regulate. FDA spokesman Michael Felberbaum said, “Rulemaking is a complex process, and this particular proposed rule resulted in more than 135,000 public comments for the agency to review and consider. FDA is committed to moving forward expeditiously to finalize the rule that will extend its authority to additional tobacco products such as e-cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco and other currently unregulated tobacco products.”

The FDA regulation is expected to be finalized this June, but in the waiting period between there is plenty of time for blames and accusations to fly. There are many potential explanations for why there is a rise in teen e-cig use, and in reality it’s probably a combination of factors, but the real truth is the teenage years are simply when you start smoking. 90% of smokers started in their teens. I don’t want kids to smoke– no one does, but if they are going to and they have a choice between e-cigs and regular cigarettes, I want them to be able to choose e-cigs.

Daman from the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association agrees, “Maybe the reason the cigarette smoking rates (among teens) are so low is because there is an alternative for people,” he said. “Anything that helps people avoid starting the very fatal habit of smoking, we're in favor of it.”

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