March 26, 2014 -- Teens usually start smoking cigarettes to be cool or rebellious, or because their friends are doing it. These days, though, the cigarettes they smoke are more and more of the electronic variety -- not tobacco.
The number of middle school and high school students who'd tried the candy-like flavors of e-cigarettes doubled between 2011 and 2012. About 1.78 million U.S. students had tried e-cigarettes as of 2012.
A study published earlier this month shows that middle school and high school students who smoke e-cigarettes also are more likely to smoke tobacco cigarettes. While that doesn't mean e-cigarettes lead kids to smoke tobacco cigarettes, it does show a strong link between the two habits.
Further research shows that 70% of adult smokers start before age 18.
The growing popularity of e-cigarettes -- among adults as an aid to quit smoking and among teens -- has turned them into a $1.5 billion-a-year industry. Revenue could grow to $3 billion in 5 years.
Research into their potential effects on health, though, is still in the early phases. There’s enough concern that the FDA is considering regulations.
For teens who have never smoked, e-cigarettes are an introduction to nicotine, which is highly addictive. Public health officials are worried this could lead to tobacco use.
For adults who smoke tobacco cigarettes, e-cigarettes may not be as dangerous, because they don’t have the same toxins as the tobacco kind, except for the nicotine.
"There's enough data to conclude that they are much safer than regular cigarettes, and for smokers who are having trouble quitting using other methods, they're much better off switching to electronic cigarettes," says Michael B. Siegel, MD. He's a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health.
The data don’t explore the long-terms health effects of e-cigarettes, though. "We don't know the absolute risks -- whether, over a very long period of time, the e-cigarette might have harms associated with it," Siegel says. "They haven't been on the market long enough to understand if they may have long-term side effects."
And it’s still unclear whether they help people kick the habit. One recent study concludes e-cigarettes didn’t lead to quitting or less smoking.