E-cigarettes have been touted as a safe way to help adults quit smoking, but the rising trend in teen usage is alarming researchers and parents alike.
One in 10 high school students said they had tried an e-cigarette last year, according to a national survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That’s up from 1 in 20 in 2011. In total, 1.8 middle and high school students said they had tried e-cigarettes in 2012.
“It would seem that for kids it’s a trendy way of getting nicotine,” said
Dr. James Fitzgibbon, Akron Children’s director of adolescent medicine. “Kids still seek out cigarettes for nicotine because it helps with their anxiety, it helps with diet suppression. They are part of what kids do to self-medicate.”
Electronic cigarettes are battery-powered devices that vaporize a liquid substance to deliver nicotine. Producers promote them as a healthy alternative to smoking.
Though many agree they are less harmful than smoking traditional cigarettes, researchers say the health effects are not yet known.
The FDA doesn’t control e-cigarettes and hasn’t conducted any studies on them.
“We don’t really know that they are perfectly safe,” said Dr. Fitzgibbon. “Nicotine increases your heart rate. It could increase your blood pressure.”
What’s alarming to many is the fact that 1 in 5 middle school students who said they had tried e-cigarettes reported never having smoked a conventional cigarette. Among high school students, 7 percent who had tried an e-cigarette said they had never smoked a cigarette.
“We have this gap between what we observe and why they’re doing it,” said Dr. Fitzgibbon. “Obviously, these were kids who avoided smoking [possibly] because they got the message that it was dangerous or risky, and then they get this conflicting message about e-cigarettes that they are safe and they don’t have side affects.”
Though he hasn’t seen many of these cases at Akron Children’s Hospital, Dr. Fitzgibbon advises parents of kids smoking e-cigarettes to engage in a discussion about why they’re doing it and the misconceptions in health risks.
“Use the same tactic you would if you caught them smoking a cigarette,” Dr. Fitzgibbon said. “It’s the same kind of discussion about why, and what else can we do besides smoking cigarettes to feel better. It creates communication that might help.”