CDC reports on teenage e-cigarette use, media exaggerates implications

A recent Center for Disease Control (CDC) study revealed that electronic cigarette usage is rising among teens. However, many news articles have spun the data’s findings to make e-cigarettes seem scarier than they probably are.

E-cigs use a battery to heat water vapor containing nicotine and other additives, like flavors. The user inhales the vapor like they were smoking a real cigarette, but the vapor does not damage lung tissue like tobacco smoke does.

The CDC report says that the number of students who have tried e-cigs more than doubled, from 1.4 percent to 2.7 percent and 4.7 percent to 10 percent for middle and high school students, respectively. The study also found that 90 percent of those who had tried e-cigs had also previously tried tobacco cigarettes.

About 1.1 percent of middle school and 2.8 percent of high school students reported “current use” of e-cigs, but the study describes ‘current use’ as smoking an e-cig at least once in the past 30 days. The study does not mention reported daily or weekly usage rates.

Photo by Flickr user momentimedia

So why does the CDC consider these findings a “serious concern?” Mostly, because usage has doubled, which seems like a scary figure until you realize that over 90 percent of students have never picked up an e-cig. They also cast e-cigs as a gateway drug to tobacco; as mentioned above, 90 percent of students who tried them had already used real cigarettes.

Nonetheless the CDC reports, “Given the rapid increase in use and youths’ susceptibility to social and environmental influences to use tobacco, developing strategies to prevent marketing, sales, and use of e-cigarettes among youths is critical.”

As Nick Gillespie points out for Time, e-cig “experimentation – among kids is on the rise because the devices are growing in popularity among the legal adult population.”

You’ve probably noticed television ads for e-cigs, because unlike tobacco companies, e-cig companies can still advertise on television.

The ads target adult smokers who want a healthier and crowd-friendly alternative to traditional tobacco sticks, which have been banned in America in public places like offices, restaurants, and airplanes. A New Zealand study found that e-cigs helped smokers quit tobacco, and were slightly more effective than nicotine patches, a widely used and uncontroversial alternative that smokers can use anywhere.

Gillespie mentions that another survey found 60 percent of Americans had tried tobacco (in different forms) by age 20. So, far more teens are still experimenting with far more dangerous products, whose usage is far more likely to lead to cancer over their lifetime. But that’s assuming that these experimenters make tobacco a habit, and regular-smoker rates among adults are far lower than 60 percent, and have fallen over the past decades.

While more kids may be trying e-cigs, they’re not becoming addicts. And the small amounts of users who do use them are habitually making a far safer choice than striking up a real cigarette. So despite the recent semi-panic, e-cigs are really nothing to be afraid of.