Electronic cigarette use among teens more than doubled in the last year, according to a new government study, prompting concern from health officials who say the effects of long-term use of the products is still unknown.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 4.7 percent of high-schoolers said they had used an e-cigarette in 2011, and that number rose to 10 percent in 2012.
E-cigarettes are controversial. Some say they can be a useful tool for smokers looking to quit cigarettes because they provide vaporized nicotine to the user without the toxic chemicals that come from real cigarette smoke. But public health experts point out that there's no evidence of the safety of using electronic cigarettes. They also worry that e-cigarettes could be a "gateway" to using traditional tobacco products.
"The increased use of e-cigarettes by teens is deeply troubling," said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., in a statement accompanying the study. "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."
The report showed a connection between using electronic cigarettes and using conventional cigarettes among youths. Specifically, 76.3 percent of middle- and high-schoolers who reported using an e-cigarette in the last month also said that they had smoked a regular cigarette in that same time period. Among middle-schoolers, four in five who had tried an e-cigarette at least once said they had also tried a regular cigarette.
In total, the report showed that 1.78 million middle- and high-schoolers had tried an electronic cigarette at least once last year.
Unlike traditional tobacco products, the Food and Drug Administration does not yet regulate electronic cigarettes, though it has said that it plans to in the future. Because there is no official regulation yet, no minimum age to buy the products has been set, though the Wall Street Journal reported that the FDA is discussing whether to make the minimum purchasing age 18 or 19, as well as whether to ban online sales.
There is not much safety information available on e-cigarettes. Past research has suggested that electronic cigarettes don't seem to have any negative effects on the heart. However, the FDA did find in a 2009 lab analysis that some e-cigarettes do contain carcinogens, as well as a chemical called diethylene glycol that is also found in anti-freeze. And another recent study suggested e-cigarettes could harm the lungs by increasing airway resistance.