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High schoolers are ditching cigarettes — but embracing e-cigarettes

  1. The number of middle and high school students reportedly using e-cigarettes tripled between 2013 and 2014, according to a new national survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  2. Public health advocates worry that e-cigarettes, which heat up liquid nicotine that's inhaled in vapor form, could pose unknown health risks to users, since so little remains known about their long-term health effects.
  3. CDC director Tom Frieden said in a statement that the increase in e-cigarette consumption should concern parents: "We want parents to know that nicotine is dangerous for kids at any age, whether it’s an e-cigarette, hookah, cigarette, or cigar. Adolescence is a critical time for brain development. Nicotine exposure at a young age may cause lasting harm to brain development, promote addiction, and lead to sustained tobacco use."
  4. The good news: the number of middle and high school students smoking conventional cigarettes continued its long-term decline, with 9.2 percent of students reporting conventional cigarette use in the past 30 days in 2014, compared with 12.7 percent in 2013.

E-cigarettes may be safer than cigarettes — but they're not harmless

Do e-cigarettes reduce the number of smokers, or do they attract new customers?

e-cigarette vape

An e-cigarette user blows out vapor. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Even if e-cigarettes are somewhat harmful, they could improve public health if they replace conventional cigarette use. The idea is that cigarettes are so unhealthy — they kill more than 480,000 people a year in the US — that e-cigarettes, even if they're a bit unhealthy, would be a better alternative.

The concern is that e-cigarettes might not be substituting existing tobacco products, but are instead attracting a whole new set of customers, including teens, that would have never used cigarettes in the first place. What's worse, researchers at the University of California in San Francisco explained, using e-cigarettes can get people addicted to nicotine — and that nicotine addiction could eventually lead to conventional smoking.

As Vox's Julia Belluz previously explained, the research on e-cigarettes and their effects is still too early to know whether they will be a public health win. That uncertainty has driven some public health advocates to call on the Food and Drug Administration to take stronger steps to prohibit e-cigarette marketing and sales to teens and children, especially until the science is clearer.

Further reading:

Watch: CDC Director Tom Frieden discusses things Americans could do to live longer