More teenagers trying e-cigarettes than tobacco, US study suggests

More teenagers are trying or using e-
cigarettes than tobacco products, according
to a US study that has prompted fresh
concerns among some scientists about a
new generation of nicotine addicts. The
report is the first to claim such high rates
of e-cigarette use among 12- to 18-year-
olds, though the study did not distinguish
between those who had had one puff and
never tried them again and more regular
“This is an early warning sign, not the
final story,” Wilson Compton, deputy
director of the US National Institute on
Drug Abuse, said at an American
Association for the Advancement of Science
meeting in San Jose.
Advocates believe that e-cigarettes – which
do not contain tobacco – have an enormous
potential to improve public health by
replacing traditional cigarettes, which
contain hundreds of harmful chemicals.
But some critics fear that the products
could draw more people into nicotine
addiction and possibly act as a gateway to
smoking tobacco.
Figures from an annual survey of more
than 40,000 students in 400 US secondary
schools showed that 8.7% of 14-year-olds
had smoked an e-cigarette in the previous
month. Among 16- and 18-year-olds, the
figures were higher, at 16.2% and 17.1%
respectively. By comparison, the survey
found that 4% of 14-year-olds, 7% of 16-
year-olds and 14% of 18-year-olds reported
using a tobacco cigarette.
Compton said: “It is quite surprising that a
larger number of teenagers in the US are
now reporting current use of e-cigarettes
than traditional tobacco cigarettes.”
The same survey, based on spring 2014
data compiled by the University of
Michigan, found that 36% of 14-year-olds
who had tried e-cigarettes in the past
month had never tried smoking or chewing
tobacco. Among the older teens, 30% and
21% of e-cigarette smokers aged 16 and 18
respectively said they had not previously
tried tobacco products.
“That’s a concern, because this may be a
unique and new pathway to nicotine
exposure and could open up the potential
for the development of addiction to
nicotine, with the potential for long-lasting
complications and progression to the use of
absolutely harmful forms of tobacco,” said
Compton. He said the use of e-cigarettes by
teenagers was a particular issue because
adolescence seemed to be a critical time
for the seeds of addiction to be sown.
But other experts said children trying e-
cigarettes instead of traditional cigarettes
was no bad thing. “Smoking prevalence in
youth is showing an unprecedented
decline and it is now lower than ever
before,” said Peter Hajek, director of the
tobacco dependence research unit at Barts
and the London school of medicine. “The
fact that young people are trying e-
cigarettes instead of cigarettes is a cause
for relief rather than alarm.”
Hajek added: “A lot of adolescents try e-
cigarettes by taking a puff from someone’s
device, but, crucially, they do not progress
to regular use. In fact, they usually do not
try them again, and there is even some
evidence that this may protect them from
picking up smoking.”
In the UK, about 80,000 people a year die
from tobacco smoke-related diseases –
nearly a fifth of all deaths in the over-35s.
The most damaging health effects – cancer
and heart disease – are linked to inhaling
tar and other chemicals produced when
the tobacco burns. Though e-cigarettes
produce fewer noxious chemicals, tests
have found the vapour from some to
contain cancer-causing substances such as
formaldehyde and acetaldehyde.
Deborah Arnott, head of Action on Smoking
and Health (Ash), said: “Nicotine can be
harmful to the growing brain, so it’s best if
young people avoid it. But if they’re going
to experiment, it’s better to use e-
cigarettes, as vaping is far less dangerous
than smoking and much less addictive. We
need to keep track, but so far in the UK and
the US smoking rates are going down more
than e-cigarette use is growing. This would
not be the case if vaping really were a
gateway into smoking.”
Estimates from Ash suggest that 1.3 million
people in the UK use electronic cigarettes,
with about 400,000 people using them
instead of traditional cigarettes.
Roy Harrison, professor of environmental
health at Birmingham University, said:
“There are likely public health benefits
from e-cigarettes if they provide a pathway
for smokers to give up tobacco use. There is
evidence that this can happen, and little
doubt that e-cigarettes are much less
harmful to the smoker than tobacco.
However, if adolescents who have never
used tobacco take up e-cigarette use, this is
a matter of profound concern as they are
deliberately exposing themselves to a
highly addictive substance.”