Hard-won reductions in cigarette smoking by teenagers have been overshadowed by skyrocketing use of e-cigarettes among high school age students, a government report says.
Although cigarette smoking among U.S. high school students dropped from 15.8 percent in 2011 to just over 9 percent in 2014 — a reduction of 40 percent — that gain was more than wiped out by the increase in the use of e-cigarettes, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting.
From just 1.5 percent of high school students using the battery-powered "vape" devices in 2011, that figure had jumped to 13.4 percent in 2014, the CDC reported in its latest National Youth Tobacco Survey.
Additionally, even in middle schools, the figure increased from 1.1 percent in 2013 to 3.9 percent in the latest survey.
E-cigarettes heat a nicotine solution to create an inhalable vapor and smoking them is sometimes referred to as vaping.
The long-term impact of using e-cigarettes is at present unknown, but although they don't produce some of the carcinogens that burning tobacco creates, their nicotine-laced vapor makes them equally as addictive, experts say.
A concern is that young people who become addicted to e-cigarettes, and finding them generally more expensive than cigarettes, will consider switching to the traditional product even with its known health dangers, they say.
Use of e-cigarettes has surpassed use of all other tobacco products, including traditional cigarettes, for the first time, the CDC noted.
Blacks and Hispanics are the heaviest users of the devices, it said.
"We want parents to know that nicotine is dangerous for kids at any age, whether it's an e-cigarette, hookah, cigarette or cigar," CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said in a statement. "Adolescence is a critical time for brain development. Nicotine exposure at a young age may cause lasting harm to brain development, promote addiction, and lead to sustained tobacco use."
In addition to the rise in e-cigarette use, smoking of hookahs, also known as water pipes or bubble pipes, is also increasing for both high school and middle school students, the CDC found.
The smoking alternatives to traditional tobacco products have resulted in the first increase in teen smoking in a generation, Frieden said, calling the survey findings "deeply alarming."
The problem, he says, is that anti-smoking campaigns and tobacco laws have not been able to keep pace with the ever-increasing smoking alternatives.
"We're having to play whack-a-mole with different tobacco products," he said.
The survey found that overall, almost 25 percent of high school students and 8 percent of middle school students are using some type of tobacco product.