U.S. Surgeon General Calls for Crackdown on E-Cig Use in Teens
900 percent increase in use among youth in past 5 years; concerns about nicotine, harmful vapors continue
E-cigarettes are now the most popular tobacco product among American teens, according to a new U.S. Surgeon General's report that calls for a crackdown on the devices.
E-cigarette use among high school students grew an astounding 900 percent between 2011 and 2015, and the devices surpassed traditional cigarettes as teens' preferred tobacco product in 2014, the report finds.
"E-cigarettes went from being rare in 2010 to now being the most common tobacco product used by our nation's youth," U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said during a news conference Thursday.
"This represents a staggering development in a relatively short period of time. It also threatens 50 years of hard-fought progress we have made curbing tobacco use, and it places a whole new generation at risk for addiction to nicotine," he added.
This is the first report the Surgeon General has ever issued on e-cigarettes.
Public health officials are most concerned about the effect that nicotine inhaled from the devices can have on the developing brains of teenagers, Murthy said.
Effects of nicotine exposure can include addiction, reduced impulse control, deficits in attention and reasoning skills, and mood disorders, the report added.
Teens exposed to nicotine also are more likely to become addicted to traditional cigarettes and other drugs, according to the report. E-cigarette use is strongly associated with the use of tobacco products such as cigarettes.
"Nicotine comes from tobacco, and it is a highly addictive chemical," Murthy said.
He waved off industry claims that e-cigarettes prevent kids from becoming smokers. "There is actually no evidence to support this claim when you look closely at the data," Murthy said. "Instead, there is evidence of millions more children being exposed to nicotine through e-cigarettes."
The report also raises concerns over the potential health risks from chemicals contained in e-cigarette liquid. The devices superheat the liquid to create a vapor that users inhale, but in the process harmful compounds are released that can damage the air passages.
Studies have shown that kids in the 8th, 10th and 12th grades choose e-cigarettes over tobacco cigarettes, the report said.
In 2015, almost 7 percent of 8th graders exclusively used e-cigarettes during the previous month, alongside 10.4 percent of 10th and 12th graders. Meanwhile, conventional cigarette use occurred in 1.4 percent, just over 2 percent and slightly more than 5 percent of 8th, 10th and 12th graders, respectively.
The e-cigarette industry is enticing teens to try their products by flavoring the vapor to taste like candy and fruit, Murthy said, and by using advertising strategies that focus on celebrity endorsements, sponsorship of sports and music events, along with themes of rebellion and sex.
"These strategies are working to reach kids," he said. "In 2014, seven out of 10 middle school and high school students, which amounts to 18 million kids, reported seeing e-cigarette advertisements in retail stores, online sites, movies, television shows and magazines."
Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the report "makes clear that the skyrocketing youth use of e-cigarettes is no accident."
Instead, he said in a statement: "It stems directly from the irresponsible actions of e-cigarette manufacturers, including the use of sweet flavors that appeal to kids and marketing themes and tactics similar to those long used to market conventional cigarettes to kids. Studies have found that more than 85 percent of current youth e-cigarette users use flavored e-cigarettes, and flavors are the leading reason for youth use."
The report concludes with a call to action, urging a number of steps to limit e-cigarette use among teens:
- Adding e-cigarettes to all policies and programs related to tobacco cigarettes.
- Educating parents, teachers and teens about the risks of e-cigarette use.
- Implement regulation of the e-cigarette industry by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
- Curb e-cigarette advertising likely to appeal to teens and young adults.
- Expand research into the potential harmful effects of e-cigarettes.
The FDA banned e-cigarette sales to minors earlier this year, as part of the agency's long-awaited plan to extend its regulatory powers across all tobacco products.
However, the FDA did not take steps to ban the use of flavorings in e-cigarettes, a move that has been criticized by anti-tobacco groups.
"Federal, state and local policymakers must heed this call from the Surgeon General to protect our children from becoming the next generation hooked on tobacco," American Lung Association National President and CEO Harold Wimmer said in a statement.
By Dennis Thompson