E-cigarettes have seen a surge in promotion this summer as safer alternatives to their natural cousins. The devices, which are designed to look like ordinary cigarettes or cigars, are battery-powered and may contain a certain amount of nicotine (or none at all) that is vaporized. Their defining characteristic is that they don't contain tobacco, which is ostensibly the source of cigarettes' carcinogenicity, and thus are helpful for smokers looking to quit because they provide a nicotine fix without the smoke. However, the Wild West-type environment created by this new industry has left a usually-legally protected group vulnerable to the charms of e-cigarettes: teenagers.
"The increased use of e-cigarettes by teens is deeply troubling," said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. "Nicotine is a highly addictive drug. Many teens who start with e-cigarettes may be condemned to struggling with a lifelong addiction to nicotine and conventional cigarettes." Thus far, the devices are unregulated by the FDA, which makes it particularly important for their users to stay abreast of research into their safety, which has not been definitively proven, especially in the long term. A minimum age for the sale of e-cigarettes has not yet been set, which perhaps explains their appeal among the underage set. Fortunately, the Wall Street Journal reported last month that the FDA is mulling setting a minimum age of 18 or 19 for e-cigarettes as well as banning online sales.
Even more worrying is the fact that even as they may help older smokers quit, e-cigarettes seem to be an enticing gateway drug to their tobacco-filled cousins. According to data from the National Youth Tobacco survey, the percentage of middle and high school students who had tried e-cigarettes had more than doubled from 3.3% in 2011 to 6.8% in 2012.
This statistic doesn't quite capture the full extent of the problem, though: Frieden said in a statement that 76.3% of these e-cigarette smokers said that they also smoked conventional cigarettes. That means that, to varying extents, e-cigarettes are simply being used as an easy point of access for young smokers. And this is an issue.
"About 90 percent of all smokers begin smoking as teenagers. We must keep our youth from experimenting or using any tobacco product," Dr. Tim McAfee, the director of the CDC Office on Smoking and Health, said in a statement.
Hopefully regulations on the sale of e-cigarettes will soon be enacted, because as many tobacco companies, out of fear of competition, are buying e-cigarette companies, the youngest smokers will surely represent Ground Zero for marketers' slick efforts.