Science & Technology

Kids Are Trying E-Cigarettes. Everybody Panic!


planetc1 / photo on flickr

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report today showing that e-cigarette use is up among the youths.

The flashiest result:

The percentage of U.S. middle and high school students who use electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, more than doubled from 2011 to 2012.

The press release highlights findings that "the percentage of high school students who reported ever using an e-cigarette rose from 4.7 percent in 2011 to 10.0 percent in 2012," and that "high school students using e-cigarettes within the past 30 days rose from 1.5 percent to 2.8 percent." 

The data were collected in the same way that the CDC gathers info about youth smoking—a pencil-and-paper questionnaire filled out at school—but there's crucial missing information. 

The CDC (in its delightfully named Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report) refers to use of cigarettes or e-cigarettes in the last 30 days as "current" use, which makes it sound like these kids are regular users. But there's a reason you don't see kids flashing their e-cigs on every street corner and constantly popping in to 7-11 to buy new cartridges of chocolate-flavored nicotine: Those figures are capturing a lot of teen experimentation, not necessarily addiction. 

With less than 3 percent of kids copping to vaping in the last 30 days, it's safe to assume that the daily use figure is vanishingly small. (The CDC's press office says they did not ask questions about daily use in the survey.)

Which makes this quote from CDC Director Tom Frieden sound a little hysterical:

"The increased use of e-cigarettes by teens is deeply troubling….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 news that about 3 percent of teens took a puff from an e-cigarette this month is not exactly a harbinger of the return of the days of smoke-filled rooms, twitchy cigarette cravings, and rampant lung cancer.

E-cigarettes do deliver nicotine. Using an e-cigarette also looks and feels like smoking a traditional cigarette, which is why lots of folks who are trying to quit smoking prefer them to gum or patches. But that's about all they deliver, which makes them much, much safer than conventional cigs, where combustible carcinogens of all types get sucked down alongside the nicotine. E-cigs pose no known risk to bystanders (though many more studies are currently underway), since the vapor is mostly water with only the smallest trace amounts of nicotine and flavor solvent.  

While detractors point out that the solvent, propylene glycol, is chemically similar to a component of  antifreeze, that scary comparison is misleading: The substance is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in AIDS medicines, eye drops, nasal spray, and as a food additive. The stuff is in Robitussin Children's Cough & Cold medicines, for crying out loud. It's also, by the by, present in traditional cigarettes.