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High school e-cigarette use is exploding and reversing prevention gains

Chris Cioffi, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- The number of young people using tobacco products has reached its highest level in years, as e-cigarette popularity is reversing recent progress on other products that contain nicotine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Monday.

In recent years, the overall proportion of high school students using any tobacco products fell, mainly due to fewer students smoking cigarettes and cigars, the CDC said. But from 2017 to 2018, the number of high school students reporting e-cigarette use within the past month nearly doubled from 11.7 percent to 20.8 percent. That pushed their overall tobacco use rate from 19.6 percent to 27.1 percent in 2018.

While changes to survey methodology and the existence of new products like e-cigarettes make today's overall tobacco use numbers difficult to compare to years before 2011, the current high-school tobacco use rate resembles cigarette smoking levels not seen since 2001.

Additionally, recent decreases in the number of students smoking cigarettes and cigars are stagnating, the CDC said. The number of high school students reporting cigarette smoking in the past 30 days has dropped from 15.8 percent in 2011, but has been hovering around 8 percent since 2016. Cigar use experienced a similar trend, with current usage also around 8 percent of students.

For adult smokers, e-cigarettes are supposed to be a safer alternative, but only if a smoker switches completely. However, many adults who use the liquid nicotine products continue to use regular cigarettes, and the new CDC data show the number of dual users appears to be on the rise among young people.

Among tobacco users in high school, around 40 percent use two or more products. The most frequent combination of products was cigarettes and e-cigarettes, CDC official Brian A. King said on a call with reporters Monday.

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The new report builds on evidence that youth e-cigarette use raises the risk of graduating to combustible cigarettes, he said.

"E-cigarettes could be playing a role in the patterns of use we're seeing among kids in terms of cigarette smoking," he said, adding, "It is possible that we are reinforcing and perpetuating dependency."

While the Trump administration says that e-cigarettes could be an effective tool for helping adults quit smoking traditional cigarettes, Monday's report suggested that the opposite is true for younger people, said Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.

"The kids using e-cigarettes are children who rejected conventional cigarettes, but don't see the same stigma associated with the use of e-cigarettes," Gottlieb said in a statement. "But now, having become exposed to nicotine through e-cigs, they will be more likely to smoke."

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