According to a recent release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of U.S. middle and high school students who use electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, has more than doubled from 2011 to 2012, and that more than 75 percent of them also smoke conventional cigarettes. Experts believe this increase might be due in part by the efforts of tobacco companies, eager to regain lost profits, actively marketing their electronic cigarettes to young people. But what do these statistics actually mean and is e-cigarette usage among teens a cause for great concern or a fad that will go the way of bell-bottoms or boy bands?
What Is An E-Cigarette?
An e-cigarette is a battery-powered device that imitates smoking a tobacco cigarette. Many of the devices look just like traditional cigarettes, but many others do not. A big difference is that unlike traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes don’t burn tobacco and can come in many non-traditional flavors such as like cherry, mint, and chocolate.
As when smoking a traditional cigarette, the e-cigarette user, known as a “vaper“, draws in on the device, as one would do if they were inhaling from the end of a cigarette. This causes the battery in the device to power the heating element, which then vaporizes the liquid in the cartridge. The vapor is either inhaled into the lungs or just into the mouth, and expelled through the nose or mouth. The liquid solutions found in the delivery cartridges can contain straight nicotine or a mixture of nicotine and flavoring, while others release a flavored vapor without nicotine.
Currently, e-cigarette devices and the cartridges are unregulated, but the FDA is in the process of having them labeled as a drug-delivery device so they can be regulated [source: FDA]. There are other similar devices on the market that mimic smoking cigars or hookahs.
Tip and filter styles vary, but the 3 things all e-cigarettes have in common are:
- A battery
- A heating element
- A Liquids cartridge
According to e-cigarette sellers, the vapor inhaled by the smoker of the electronic cigarette has as much nicotine (or more) as a regular cigarette. The smoker’s body absorbs around 98% of the nicotine, thus other people around the smoker are not exposed to any airborne nicotine, tar or carbon monoxide. In this way, electronic cigarettes eliminate the effects of the passive smoking.
Like their tobacco counterparts, electronic cigarettes come with a hefty price tag attached. Typically, one purchases a starter kit, (the e-cigarette device, a battery, and several cartridges), which can cost anywhere from $60 to $150. After that, a pack of five cartridges (each equal to about a pack of cigarettes), retails for about $10.
- Electronic cigarettes don’t burn tobacco, so the risk from the tar produced when the tobacco is burned, is non-existent.
- Because there is nothing burning, electronic cigarettes end smoking related fires.
- Electronic cigarettes help current smokers wean off traditional tobacco cigarettes.
- The vapor from electronic cigarettes has no discernible smell and dissipates quickly.
- Electronic cigarettes don’t product second-hand smoke.
- Electronic cigarettes are similar enough in appearance to be mistaken for regular cigarettes.
- Because they’re not made from tobacco, (even though they contain nicotine) they aren’t subject to tobacco laws and can be purchased and used by anyone.
- The potential long-term side effects of inhaling nicotine vapor are still not known.
- Electronic cigarettes aren’t regulated, so companies are not required to disclose the chemical ingredients in their liquid cartridges.
- Experts contend that e-cigarette makers haven’t conducted the research needed to prove that the vapor (both inhaled and second-hand) is safe.
Although there are many similarities, unlike conventional tobacco products, these unregulated electronic cigarette products are not taxed past the regular local sales tax. This has led many to suspect that the prospect of more tax revenue is the real reason behind the push to regulate these products while others contend that consumer safety is the motivating factor.
Why Electronic Cigarette Use Among Teens Is Cause for Concern
Electronic cigarette use among teens becomes appears to be a two-pronged problem.
As sited in the CDC report, “About 90 percent of all smokers begin smoking as teenagers,” and many authorities see electronic cigarettes as a gateway to regular cigarettes.
In an effort to combat this, more than 20 other states, have banned their sale to minors. And as well as bans on minors, the City of Chicago is set to become the first major city to ban anyone from smoking e-cigarettes in most public places, offices, indoor public areas, and within 10 feet of building entrances.
Legislators at all levels are wielding sharp criticisms at electronic cigarette manufacturers, accusing them of marketing their devices to children. Much of this criticism is directed toward their offering these products with flavorings such as cherry, strawberry and cookies and cream, and their use of celebrity endorsements. How electronic cigarettes are advertised to consumers is also of concern. Because e-cigarettes are not defined as a tobacco product, they are exempt from the regulations established under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Act, and more than doubled from $7.2 million to $20.8 million.
Another concern for parents and authorities is that the devices can quickly and discreetly be used anywhere to smoke Marijuana and hashish, so being able to distinguish which substances teens are actually using in the electronic devices is a problem. Some of these issues are outlined in this recent video.
In response to such disturbing trends, many school districts and colleges are amending their policies to prohibit electronic cigarette use by students and staff.
What Do Teens Say
According to teens in a recent article from a high school newspaper, the reasons for trying or continuing to use electronic cigarettes are the same as they were for teens trying or using traditional cigarettes in the past,
“I think most people smoke [or buy] eCigs because they think it’s the cool thing to do, to fit in with friends, or socially, which is the wrong reason,” Bill Smith*,junior, said. “If you smoke cigarettes, have smoked [cigarettes], or [are] looking for ways to quit, [eCigs] are a more healthy [option].”
What’s different with e-cigarettes however is the allure of being able to smoke anywhere, and the thought that electronic cigarettes are a healthier alternative to tobacco. As electronic cigarettes become more popular among teens, it seems there is reason to be concerned, but not overly alarmed.
The Future Of Electronic Cigarettes
Touted as a safe, legal, and an acceptable alternative to traditional cigarettes, electronic cigarette sales are estimated at $1.7 billion for 2013 (Source: NY Times). The FDA can mandate that e-cigs be labeled as a tobacco product which would open the door to age and advertising restrictions, regulatory taxing, and warnings similar to the Surgeon General’s warning on traditional cigarettes. With so much money to be made, electronic cigarettes are and will continue to be a hot commodity, and as a result, there are issues still to be resolved. Of greatest importance are consumer safety and access to and use of these devices by minors, and to a lesser degree, how they are advertised.
Does the FDA step in, and in the interest of public safety, impose content standards for the liquid solutions? With advertising more than doubling from $7.2 million to $20.8 million and most of it aimed toward young people, do we limit the avenues for advertising as is done with alcohol and tobacco? In an effort to cut electronic cigarette use among teens, do we limit the sale of these devices to minors?
Common sense says yes, and yes, and as of this writing, the FDA is working on such legislation.