It’s — like — so unfair! A new report on drug use among American teens shows a continuing decline in marijuana and cigarette smoking, binge drinking, hard drug use and abuse of prescription drugs — and U.S. health officials are getting all uptight about a little data point that suggests more teens are “vaping” electronic cigarettes.
According to data released Tuesday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, alcohol and cigarette use among teenagers have been falling for decades and are now at their lowest points since the study of about 50,000 students in 400 schools began in 1975. Synthetic marijuana, also called K-2 or spice, sold over the counter in many states and known to cause heart attacks, showed the sharpest decline from last year, by nearly half. And after increasing for five years, marijuana use fell slightly over the year, from 26 percent to 24 percent use for 8th, 10th and 12th graders combined.
At the same time, nearly 9 percent of eighth-graders, 16 percent of 10th-graders and 17 percent of high school seniors said they had inhaled an e-cigarette or “vaped” in the past month, while 4 percent of eighth-graders, 7 percent of 10th-graders and 14 percent of high school seniors said they had smoked a traditional cigarette.
But while e-cigarette proponents emphasize the decline of traditional cigarettes, health experts warn that e-cigarettes, though less harmful than tobacco products in the short-term, have significant detrimental health effects and can lure users into a nicotine addiction.
“That disturbs me,” said Paul Doering, professor emeritus at the University of Florida College of Pharmacy. “It still argues strongly that young people feel the need to do something that involves nicotine.”
About 90 percent of cigarette smokers develop a nicotine addiction before age 19, according to federal statistics.
“It's really worrisome when I hear that teens are using e-cigs because this could be another road to nicotine addiction and using regular cigarettes,” said Sophie Balk, a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York City.
“Some studies show that there are cancer-causing and other chemicals in the vapor, and there may be adverse effects on lung functioning.”
The survey comes as the FDA weighs public comment ahead of an April 2015 deadline to finalize rules that would ban e-cigarette sales to minors. But the proposed rules wouldn’t ban Internet sales. In addition, there are about 250 types of e-cigarettes, some of which are likely to escape the ban.
A separate survey released last month by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention found that the percentage of high school students who inhaled e-cigarettes more than doubled from 4.7 percent in 2011 to 10 percent in 2012. Middle school students’ e-cigarette use rose from 1.4 percent to 2.7 percent. More than three-quarters of the students who said they used e-cigarettes also said they smoked a traditional cigarette in the past month.
Most e-cigarettes use batteries to heat liquid mixtures containing about the same amount of nicotine in traditional cigarettes into a mist that’s inhaled, though e-cigarettes' cartridges can be filled with ranges of nicotine or no nicotine at all. But when ingested, the liquid mixtures can be poisonous. Through Nov. 30 this year, poison control centers in the U.S. have logged more than 3,600 calls involving exposures to e-cigarette devices and liquids, more than double the calls in 2013 and more than 13 times the number of calls in 2011, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
The warning on MarkTen e-cigarette packs even warns users that the nicotine they contain is “addictive and habit forming” and “very toxic by inhalation, in contact with the skin, or if swallowed.” Children, pregnant or breast-feeding women, anyone with high blood pressure or heart disease, those taking medicine for depression or asthma and others shouldn’t inhale the product, the label reads. But in most states and without federal regulation, this warning is voluntary.
Tobacco companies say they want to remain transparent with customers about the health effects of their products, but after buying e-cigarette companies, they are marketing e-cigarettes to teens with the same methods used to market menthol cigarettes, flavored to feel cool on the lips without a drop in temperature, to kids. Celebrity endorsements, TV and magazine ads, sponsorships of race cars and concerts have put e-cigarettes in flavors like cotton candy, fruit loops, sweet tarts, Hawaiian punch and Kool-Aid in front of teens.
Tobacco opponents like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids praised the survey’s finding that cigarette smoking is declining among teens, citing policy changes like higher tobacco taxes, stronger smoke-free laws, FDA regulation of tobacco products and tobacco-prevention programs.
“The long-term decline is an indication that the latest decline is not related to the increase in use of e-cigarettes,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, in a statement. He also said e-cigarettes threaten to undermine these gains by luring kids into an addiction to nicotine.
“They’re missing the point that these teens would be smoking regular cigarettes,” said Eric Weingartner, a member of the New Jersey Retailer’s Coalition and an e-cigarette seller. “We know cigarettes kill. We don’t know that e-cigarettes kill. Nobody wants to say [vaping e-cigarettes is] safe, but it’s a healthier alternative to smoking.”
Doering agrees that vaping e-cigarettes is much safer than smoking regular cigarettes, but they're harmful if they cause non-smokers to vape. He says after smoking Winston cigarettes for just one year in high school decades ago -- "it had to do with a girl who smoked like fire" -- he still has urges to light up a cigarette.
"Smoking cessation is probably one of the most difficult things to ask the human organs to do," he said.