The use of electronic cigarettes among Texas middle and high school students is growing at an alarming rate, and vaping now outpaces their use of traditional cigarettes, according to data from a state survey of secondary students.
About 1 in 4 students have used e-cigarettes, the survey shows. Alcohol remains the substance most used among Texas teens, with 67 percent reporting they have consumed alcohol, and in 2013, more than one-third reported they had at least one drink in the last 30 days.
Nationally, e-cigarette use among secondary students tripled from 2013 to 2014, surpassing the use of other tobacco products, including cigarettes, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products.
About 2 million U.S. high school students, or 13.4 percent, reported using e-cigarettes at least once in a 30-day period in 2014. Although e-cigarettes appear to have fewer of the toxins found in cigarette smoke, their impact on long-term health must be studied, the CDC says.
E-cigarettes are hand-held electronic devices that heat liquid infused with nicotine, transforming it into a vapor the user inhales. There is little information available regarding e-cigarette use among youth from the past, with the National Youth Tobacco Survey first collecting data on it in 2011, but experts say there is a steady annual increase in popularity among teens. They also warn that teenagers who have used e-cigarettes are more likely to start using tobacco within a year.
E-cigarettes are the nicotine addiction for the 21st century, said Dr. Phillip Gardiner, who works in the University of California’s tobacco-related disease research program. He spoke in Austin on Thursday at a summit for Texans Standing Tall, a statewide coalition that works to prevent underage alcohol and tobacco use.
“There’s the potential of getting more kids addicted to nicotine who would not have normally started smoking cigarettes,” he said, adding that the majority of smokers become addicted to nicotine as teens. “Once you’re addicted to nicotine, then there’s the potential you will start using other tobacco products, which we know kill you.”
While considered less toxic than cigarettes, “they are not safe,” Gardner said of e-cigarettes.
E-cigarettes don’t have the tar associated with traditional cigarettes, but contain addictive nicotine and the other chemicals, including carcinogens, Gardiner said.
The e-cigarette liquids come in more than 8,000 flavors, such as bubble gum and gummy bears that appeal to teens.
“It’s to attract children to their products,” Gardiner said. “This is the problem. They are being successful.”
There was no Texas legislation prohibiting the sale of e-cigarettes to minors in Texas until last October, and it’s unclear how successful the new law will be in curbing teen use.
In the Austin school district, 19 percent of high schoolers said they have used e-cigarettes, including 9 percent in the preceding month, and 5 percent of middle schoolers said they used them, including 3 percent in the preceding month, according to a 2015 district survey on substance use.
Tracy Spinner, the district’s assistant director of comprehensive health, said while strides have been made in tobacco and smoking education campaigns, more efforts need to be focused on e-cigarettes and vaping. The district already updated signage to include e-cigarettes among prohibited tobacco products and has updated its curriculum to warn of vaping’s dangers.
“We are going to have to hit hard on the dangers of e-cigarettes,” Spinner said. “With the vaping products that are flavored, it gives you a false sense that it is a healthier choice because it smells like cinnamon or vanilla. But in reality it is harmful … the flavoring is just masking the toxic chemicals they’re ingesting.”
Talking points for parents
- E-cigarettes can be a useful substitute for cigarettes with adult smokers, but they are illegal, harmful, and not recommended for youth.
- E-cigarette vapor contains unknown quantities of toxic chemicals. It isn’t as safe as clean air.
- Nicotine is addictive, and preteens are far more vulnerable to nicotine addiction than adults. Nicotine is more harmful to young developing brains than mature adult brains.
- The general public is ill-informed about e-cigarettes, and critics say the tobacco industry doesn’t want them to know, or worse, spreads misinformation. Kids are highly curious about them, and they are after the flavor.
- Because they are so new, nobody is 100 percent certain how harmful e-cigarettes are.
SOURCE: Dr. Steven Kelder, co-director of the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at UTHealth School of Public Health