EDITORIAL: E-cigarettes and teen smoking

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported good news in its National Youth Risk Behavior Survey: cigarette smoking by American juveniles has dropped to its lowest level in 22 years. The smoking rate among teens was 15.7 percent in 2013, which is already lower than the 16 percent rate the government hoped to reach by 2020.

The progress is being chalked up to anti-smoking campaigns, state prohibitions on smoking in bars and restaurants, the rising cost of cigarettes and the dropping rate of adult cigarette use, which is creating fewer adult smoking role models for teens.

While the teen smoking rate has been falling, the rate of e-cigarette usage is on the rise — it doubled among teens between 2011 and 2012. Part of this rise in usage can be attributed to the fact that e-cigarettes are widely promoted as healthier alternatives to regular cigarettes. And there is some truth to that.

E-cigarettes are battery-powered, reusable devices that allow users to inhale and exhale smoke- and odor-free nicotine vapor. Because e-cigarettes don’t burn tobacco, users do not inhale the tar and carbon monoxide that come with conventional cigarettes. Nicotine, of course, remains highly addictive.

Data on e-cigarette usage is still quite scarce, but, as reported by Time magazine’s Alexandra Sifferlin, Dr. Kenneth Warner of the University of Michigan School of Public Health reviewed CDC data and found that just 0.7 percent of kids who had never tried a conventional cigarette had tried an e-cigarette within the past 30 days. The data show that teens who are trying e-cigarettes are same ones who are already smoking regular cigarettes.

Despite this data, anti-smoking zealots are pushing federal, state and local regulators to crack down on e-cigarettes. They remain convinced that teens, especially, will consider e-cigarette usage “cool” even as more and more of them shun cigarette smoking. A couple of reminders for the ban-everything crowd. First, although e-cigarettes allow the consumption of nicotine, they do not produce secondhand smoke. Second, e-cigarettes are helping smokers — including some teens, no doubt — quit cigarettes entirely.

The e-cigarette industry is growing. A study published in the journal Tobacco Control found more than 460 e-cigarette brands online, as well as more than 7,760 flavors of nicotine “e-liquid,” in a January survey. No doubt the numbers are higher by now. If this business is furthering the goal of reducing cigarette smoking, shouldn’t government and health advocates leave it alone?

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