The U.S. Surgeon General recently warned that American teens are risking their health with their increasing use of cigarettes.
Now, researchers at Texas A&M University are echoing that concern after drilling deeper into the Surgeon General's report.
They point to the very rapid growth in e-cigarette use between 2010 and 2015. By last year, surveys showed that 40% of high school students had tried an e-cigarette at least once and 16% had used one in the past 30 days.
The only saving grace, says Amy Fairchild, associate dean of academic affairs at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, is teens appear to be smoking fewer cigarettes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in November 2015 that teen use of cigarettes had hit an all-time low.
“The consequences of combustible tobacco use are well known and serious, while e-cigarettes—while not risk free—represent a far lesser harm,” she said.
Where are teens getting e-cigarettes?
A concern, however, is the easy access teens appear to have to e-cigarettes. When they first hit the market a few years ago, they were completely unregulated. Now, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authority to regulate them and has set age limits on their purchase.
The FDA has set the age limit at 18, while a few states, such as California, have set higher age limits on sales. But researchers say that doesn't seem to be stopping very young teens – those in middle school – from obtaining the devices.
Fairchild suggests increasing the tax on e-cigarettes – making them more expensive – as a way to deter use by young people.
“Kids are extremely price sensitive,” she said. “There is evidence to suggest that you can tax e-cigarettes and other less risky smokeless products out of their hands. At the same time, if the tax is lower than for combustible cigarettes, current smokers aren’t also stripped of a financial incentive to switch to reduced risk products.”
While e-cigarettes have fewer toxic chemicals than tobacco, but they do contain chemicals, and Fairchild says there is concern that we don't have a complete picture of the potential harm they could do.
But the effects of the nicotine these devices contain is pretty well known. Fairchild says nicotine can harm brains that are still developing, meaning anyone under age 25 should steer clear of it.