A recent Surgeon General’s report that shows a 900-percent spike in the use of e-cigarettes by high school students has anti-smoking advocates and health care providers worried that progress made in recent years to educate kids about the dangers of smoking has stalled.
“When you look at a 900-percent increase, that’s drastic,” said Carol Reeves, executive director of Greenville Family Partnership, which works to stop alcohol, drug and tobacco use among youths.
“For me it’s very sad because we’re back at square one when it comes to educating about the risk,” she added. “We go into elementary schools and after-school programs and there’s not a kid more than fourth or fifth grade and they’re talking to us about e-cigarettes. They think they’re so cool and won’t hurt anybody.”
The report, released in December, showed the 900-percent increase from 2011-15. And Reeves said it confirms what advocates have been seeing when it comes to the impact on youth.
But Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, called the report a politically motivated attack on an industry that is helping people quit smoking.
“Discussion of the risks and benefits of vapor products should center on the science, not moralizing platitudes,” he said. “The Surgeon General has failed the American people by releasing such a biased report.”
E-cigarettes produce an aerosol that contains flavorings, additives and nicotine, which can be addictive and harm the developing adolescent brain, according to the report.
They have been shown to lead to the use of other tobacco products and in 2014, their use by those in the 18-to-24 age group surpassed that of older adults, according to the report.
And nine in 10 adult smokers had their first cigarettes as children, studies show.
The use of nicotine in any form by youths – including in e-cigarettes – is unsafe, the Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, concluded.
While e-cigarettes emit fewer toxic substances than conventional tobacco products, they still contain solvents, flavorings and toxicants and therefore aren’t harmless, he said.
“Although we continue to learn more about e-cigarettes with each passing day, we currently know enough to take action to protect our nation’s young people from being harmed by these products,” he said. “Preventing tobacco use in any form among youth and young adults is critical to ending the tobacco epidemic in the United States.
And Dr. Jeremy Byrd, of Greenville Health System’s Heritage Pediatrics and Internal Medicine, said young people are curious and often not worried about the health impacts of e-cigarettes the way they are about tobacco.
“Even as physicians, the perception is that it’s not as harmful as smoke, but the nicotine is known to be harmful,” he said. “And the amount of carcinogens may be less, but there are still caercinogens. You’re not moving to something that doesn’t cause cancer.
“It’s the lesser of two evils,” he added. “But it’s still an evil.”
And because their use is so wide-spread, Byrd said pediatricians need to talk to their patients more about e-cigarettes.
“We go through their health maintenance visits and often talk about tobacco, alcohol and drugs. However, when you do tobacco, people think about cigarettes or smokeless tobacco,” he said. “Obviously we need to be more vigilant. We need to reorient ourselves.”
Call to action
The report showed that e-cigarette use more than tripled among middle and high school students and doubled among those 18 to 24 years since 2011.
And one reason is marketing by promoting flavors and using a variety of approaches that have been used in the past to target youth and young adults, such as television, magazines and the Internet, the report said.
“The escalation of how kids are using them and the rate at which they’re escalating has gone even faster than I had anticipated. And it is following Big Tobaccos’s footprint with their marketing tactics,” said Reeves. “If kids are fooling around with e-cigarettes now, they will use other tobacco products and at 18 and 19 will use cigarettes.”
The report concluded that along with educating youths about the dangers of e-cigarettes, action must be taken at the national, state and local levels to address their use, such as including e-cigarettes in smokefree policies, preventing youths from accessing them, pricing and tax policies that discourage their use, and regulating their marketing to youth.
In its Call to Action, the report said what’s needed are accelerated policies and approaches to reduce the public health threat posed by e-cigarette use among young people.
“Nicotine is not an easy addiction to break. I’ve had hundreds, probably thousands of patients who started when they were younger and haven’t been able to stop smoking,” said Byrd. “We know what to do. We just need to do it.”
To read the full report, go to http://e-cigarettes.surgeongeneral.gov/resources.html