The Center for Disease Control recently released a statement on their findings of their annual youth smoking survey, and they revealed some surprising, and perhaps not so surprising, facts about tobacco and e-cigarettes use among today’s teens and adolescents. The survey showed that 4.5% of high school aged teenagers had used an e-cigarette product at some point within the last month; this figure is up from 1.5% in 2011 and 2.8% in 2012. This rise in use among youth has many e-cigarettes critics up in arms, as they believe it proves what they have always feared, that e-cigarettes are designed to be more attractive to teenagers and adolescents.
There are many reasons that opponents of vaporizers find disconcerting when it comes to e-cigarettes. For one, companies can still advertise e-cigarettes on TV; something traditional cigarettes haven’t been able to do since 1971. Between the years 2011 and 2013, e-cigarettes ads have increased at a rate of 256%. According to a study published this summer in Pediatrics more than 3/4ths of teen’s exposure to e-cigarette advertising comes from ads on cable television. In addition, e-cigarettes are also able to advertise through product placement. Just a few months ago, SmokeStik, a Canadian e-cigarette brand, made headlines by paying for placement in a Hollywood movie. In the film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline one of the characters is seen enjoying an electronic cigarette throughout the movie; this is the first time a “tobacco” company has been allowed to pay for placement since 1998. Critics are concerned that the overexposure on television and in movies is glorifying e-cigarettes and making them more attractive and acceptable for youth to use.
Kristin Noll-Marsh is vice president of the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association. She claims that despite the exposure to the youth population, these ads and placements are not designed to lure kids into smoking. Commercials for e-cigarettes include celebrity endorsements, but they are honestly older and less relevant stars like Stephen Dorff and Jenny McCarthy. “These aren’t young, sexy, hip, today, A-list celebrities,” Noll-Marsh points out, “What 13-year-old knows who Stephen Dorff is?”
In addition, the movies that feature e-cigarettes are not glorifying the habit, nor are they movies that are made for a teen or adolescent audience.
However, opponents are still concerned with other aspects of e-cigarettes mainly that the advertising and manufacturing of a variety of sweet flavors, is designed to entice teens to purchase the product. Erika Sward, assistant vice president of the National Advocacy for the American Lung Association, believed the flavors are clear signs of the e-cigarette companies intentions, “It’s pretty clear to the Lung Association that cotton candy e-cigarettes are not targeted at adults.” Many critics truly believe there is an effort to ensnare the younger population in an e-cigarette addiction, however offering variety to adult consumers does not equate to an intention to specifically target a youth population.
Perhaps critics have a right to harbor some concerns, as e-cigarettes are still easier for youth to obtain than traditional cigarettes. Youth in 8 different states are still allowed to purchase e-cigarettes. In Massachusetts, Maine, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas the sale of e-cigarettes to minor is not currently outlawed, though business owners can reserve the right to refuse sale to minors and many do.
The increase in teen e-cigarette usage could be attributed to advertising, ease of access, or to enticing flavors, however if one looks at the whole picture it seems this increase is just a societal trend. Use among adults in e-cigarettes has risen in the last few years as well too. Youth issues often mirror those of adult usage. If more people in general, are using e-cigarettes, it’s likely that more teenagers will too.
In addition, the CDC survey also revealed that smoking traditional cigarettes was down since 2011 as well. In 2013, the percentage of high school aged youth who smoke traditional cigarettes was 12.7%, this was down from 15.8% in 2011. This difference of 3.1% could be attributed simply to less kids smoking traditional cigarettes, or perhaps this difference is in part to youth deciding to smoke e-cigarettes, instead of their combustible counterparts.
Michael Siegel, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health believes that the candy flavors may actually be a benefit and inevitably prevent teenagers from “real” smoking. If a youth becomes an e-cigarette users they would become used to sweet-tasting nicotine, “The idea of smoking a Marlboro just doesn’t appeal to them, and if they try it, it’ll taste more disgusting than it normally would.” No one wants any youth to begin smoking, whether it is traditional cigarettes or vaping; however the lesser of two evils is clear in this scenario. Any product that contains nicotine carries risks and these products should be kept away from teenagers and adolescents. That is not a statement either side of the debate would disagree on. However, turning e-cigarettes into the bad guys is not the answer.
The trends of the teenage population are simply mimicking that of the general population around us. With sales of e-cigarettes growing at a rate of approximately 25% each year, and this growth rate expected to continue until 2018, clearly the use is up among adults as well. Blaming e-cigarettes, simply because they are more enticing, for the rise in youth use, could only come as a result of a short-sighted analysis of the given facts.
It is important for the e-cigarettes manufacturers and distributors to be sensitive to their advertising and distribution efforts, and ensure that there is never any intention to encourage youth to pick up vaping as a habit. In order to keep e-cigarettes available to the general adult population it is important for the industry to remain socially responsible. E-cigarettes truly stand to be more than just a hobby device. E-cigarettes stand to be a significant public health benefit, saving people’s lives and changing the world. That is if they aren’t cut down before they really getting started.