E-cigarettes: A gateway to nicotine addiction?

A new study finds U.S. school kids are using electronic cigarettes more than ever before

E-cigarette smoker
(Image credit: (Joe Raedle/Getty Images))

Kids just can't get enough of electronic cigarettes.

The use of the battery-powered smoke inhalers doubled among U.S. middle and high school students between 2011 and 2012, according to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A total of 1.78 million children admitted puffing on an e-cig — with 160,000 of them admitting doing so while never having tried ordinary cigarettes.

The CDC calls this trend a "serious concern." Although e-cigarettes contain far fewer chemicals and carcinogens than a burning roll of tobacco, they still deliver a mild hit of nicotine — a drug that may impact adolescent brain development. Some research also suggests e-cigarettes could be linked to cancer. But the Food and Drug Administration does not yet regulate the growing $1.7 billion industry. "It is crucial that they do so," said Dr. Mark Siegel at Fox News:

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Twelve states including New York, California, and Colorado have laws preventing minors from purchasing e-cigarettes, but few are paying attention. Minors in those states can still purchase e-cigarettes on line, or borrow them from their parents. Something needs to be done. Ninety percent of smokers start when they are teens. [Fox News]

So why are so many kids taking up e-smoking? Public health advocates say e-cigarette companies are following the playbook tobacco companies used to attract young people back in the mid-20th century — flashy marketing designed to appeal to young people, and candy flavorings like bubble gum, chocolate chip cookie, and "Atomic Fireball."

"There's no question these products are being marketed directly at kids," Erika Sward, vice president for national advocacy at the American Lung Association, told the Los Angeles Times. "I think this data really shows our concerns are real."

But let's not condemn e-cigarettes outright. The odorless devices are more sociable, and demonstrably safer than their traditional alternative. And new research suggests that they can be a good way to wean nicotine-addicted Americans off actual cigarettes. A study published in British medical journal The Lancet this week suggests it might be as effective as other cessation aids like nicotine patches. E-cigarettes may not exactly be "nutritious," said Windsor Mann at USA Today, but they are "not that big of a deal":

Ingesting strange chemicals is — let's face it — part of growing up, even if they are addictive. Indeed, it has even become a custom for presidential candidates to catalog all the illegal substances they have used, and to be duly applauded afterward for their vast experience. That is because we cherish the freedom to be stupid more than the duty to be safe. Kids, like politicians, do foolish and dangerous things, and it is up to adults to make sure that they misbehave as responsibly as possible. [USA Today]

So perhaps it's time for the FDA to finally exercise its oversight of the market. More published research might clear up the many questions that remain over e-cigarette use — how dangerous they are, how addictive they are, and how effective they can be as a cessation aid. The agency has the power to demand all that information, said The Washington Post in an editorial. "It should get going":

We would be the last ones to hope that any tobacco product succeeds. Nicotine addiction is not be wished on anyone. But if the FDA can get more addicted smokers onto e-cigarettes without encouraging children and teenagers to take up smoking, it would do some good. [Washington Post]

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