Now chic among celebrities, electronic cigarettes are gaining favor among U.S. teenagers as new data show a recent doubling in usage.
Last year, 10% of high school students say they tried e-cigarettes, up from 4.7% in 2011, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey released Thursday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A doubling also occurred among U.S. middle school students saying they've experimented with e-cigarettes - from 1.4% to 2.7% - and similar spikes in teen usage were found in the 2013 Florida Youth Tobacco Survey.
"The increased use of e-cigarettes by teens is deeply troubling," CDC Director Tom Frieden said in announcing the findings. "Many teens who start with e-cigarettes may be condemned to struggling with a lifelong addiction to nicotine and conventional cigarettes."
The CDC survey comes as the federal government is expected to announce, as early as October, its plan to regulate these battery-powered devices as tobacco products. E-cigarettes heat a solution containing nicotine, which is derived from tobacco leaves, into a vapor that users inhale. While they don't have the myriad chemicals of regular cigarettes, they still provide a nicotine kick.
"We don't yet understand the long-term effects of these novel tobacco products," Mitch Zeller, director of FDA's Center for Tobacco Products, said in a statement. He said the survey's findings reinforce why FDA plans to regulate the booming market of e-cigarettes, which each of the nation's top three tobacco companies have joined in the last 16 months.
The annual survey found that while most teens who say they've used e-cigarettes also report using regular cigarettes, one in five middle school students who've tried the former say they've never tried the latter.
"This indicates that e-cigarettes could be a gateway to nicotine addiction and use of other tobacco products," says Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. He blames this upswing on slick new marketing, which enlists celebrities including Jenny McCarthy, Stephen Dorff and Courtney Love for the pitches.
"These ads portray e-cigarette use as an act of rebellion, much like cigarette ads have done," Myers says, adding they undercut efforts to de-glamorize smoking to kids. He also says the sweet flavors of some e-cigarettes, such as chocolate and "cherry crush," lure youth.
The survey finds more teens aren't just trying e-cigarettes once. Last year, 2.8% of high school students said they used them within the past 30 days, up from 1.5% in 2011. For middle school students, such usage rose from 0.6% to 1.1% during the same period.
The Florida survey, done by the state's health department, provides similar but more recent data. This year, it found that 5.4% of the state's high school students say they used e-cigarettes within the past month, up from 3.1% in 2011. It found that 12.1% of these students now say they've tried e-cigarettes at least once, up from 6.0% in 2011.
The e-cigarette industry says its product helps adult smokers kick the habit and is not aimed at kids. Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, the nation's largest tobacco company, says it won't sell its new e-cigarette - the Mark-Ten, which debuted last month - to minors. R.J. Reynolds, the second-largest tobacco company, says its newly revamped VUSE product is also targeted only at adults.
"We're for responsible regulation," including a ban on sales to kids, says Thomas Kiklas of the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, an industry group.
More states, including Indiana and Mississippi, have banned the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, and others are seeking to tax the devices or extend indoor smoking restrictions to them.