A new scientific study reports that around 40 percent of teenage e-cigarette users have never tried tobacco, which has added to concerns that electronic cigarettes have started attracting an entirely new group of users rather than just people who are trying to quit ordinary cigarettes. Of those teenagers using e-cigarettes, a remarkable 91 percent report hearing positive feedback about “e-cigs” from those around them.
The study was published this week in the journal Pediatrics, and it highlights the challenges which public health officials face in trying to stop teenagers from using nicotine. The concern is that after years of tobacco smoking rates declining among adolescents, increasing e-cigarette use might produce a “renormalization” of smoking among teenagers.
The researchers found that the variety of factors surrounding e-cigarettes had produced a “positive social environment” around the technology where “e-cigarettes are becoming more normalized,” according to the lead author of the study, the University of Southern California’s Jessica Barrington-Trimis.
The study looked at 2,048 11th and 12th-grade students (both male and female) in a variety of ethnic groups across Southern California.
According to Barrington-Trimis, the fact that some 40 percent of e-cigarettes hadn’t ever smoked traditional cigarettes led the researchers to suspect that “e-cigarettes are different… these might be different kids,” she said. In her view, the teenagers who smoke e-cigarettes might never have touched ordinary tobacco products.
The study also underscored the crucial importance of a teenager’s environment in using e-cigarettes: 34 percent who currently use them have another user of e-cigarettes among their friends or at home.
Of those who have 3-4 of their closest friends using e-cigarettes, the researchers found these adolescents were 104 times as likely to use e-cigarettes as those who had no friends currently using e-cigarettes. Barrington-Trimis called this a “very strong finding.”
E-cigarettes, UK e-liquids and other electronic smoking products appeared in the US back in 2007 but their popularity has only risen very recently. The 2013-2014 period saw the percentage of high schoolers who use e-cigarettes triple from 4.5% to 13.4%, according to results from the latest National Youth Tobacco Survey. It’s an increase which has completely offset declines in tobacco cigarette use, which went down from 12.7 percent (2013) to 9.2% in 2014.
The study in Pediatrics is further evidence of the increasing popularity of e-cigarettes and their rapid rise in a very short time frame.
Study participants were given a questionnaire to fill out, providing information about their own use of traditional cigarettes and e-cigarettes (such as how often they’ve taken even “one or two puffs” in the prior 30 days) as well as psychosocial factors like how many of their closest friends use them.
California’s rate of adolescent tobacco use is one of the US’s lowest, so it’s possible that other areas have fewer adolescent e-cigarette users who’ve never tried tobacco. Still, the report comes at a point when legislatures around the country have started enacting many new restrictions on regular smoking, including increasing the legal age to buy tobacco products.
One advocate of a New York bill to prohibit using e-cigs in public said that “e-cigarettes are undoing years of work by tobacco advocates to make smoking uncool.”
The effects of e-cigarettes on either short- or long-term health are unclear, so researchers can’t say whether they carry the same risks as ordinary cigarettes.