By Robert Preidt
MONDAY, Aug. 25, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- More than a quarter-million middle and high school students who were non-smokers say they used an electronic cigarette last year -- a threefold increase from 2011, a new U.S. study says.
Researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said those numbers jumped from 79,000 in 2011 to 263,000 in 2013.
The CDC report also found that non-smoking children who used e-cigarettes were nearly twice as likely to say they plan to start smoking tobacco cigarettes compared to those who never used e-cigarettes -- about 44 percent versus 21.5 percent, respectively.
"We are very concerned about nicotine use among our youth, regardless of whether it comes from conventional cigarettes, e-cigarettes or other tobacco products. Not only is nicotine highly addictive, it can harm adolescent brain development," Dr. Tim McAfee, director of CDC's Office on Smoking and Health, said in an agency news release.
One other anti-smoking advocate agreed.
"This study highlights the need for the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] to develop strong regulations regarding electronic cigarettes," said Patricia Folan, a nurse and director of the Center for Tobacco Control at North Shore-LIJ in Great Neck, N.Y.
"Without these FDA regulations, the number of teenagers using cigarettes and electronic devices may increase, resulting in a reversal of the many successes that have been made in tobacco control over the past several years, especially among adolescents," Folan said.
The new study findings come from an analysis of data from the 2011, 2012 and 2013 National Youth Tobacco surveys of middle and high school students in the United States.
E-cigarettes contain nicotine but lack many of the carcinogens found in traditional tobacco cigarettes. However, the CDC says there is research suggesting that nicotine's harmful effects on teen brain development could cause lasting problems in thinking and memory.
Nicotine is highly addictive, and about three-quarters of teen smokers become adult smokers, the CDC said.
For that reason, "the increasing number of young people who use e-cigarettes should be a concern for parents and the public health community, especially since youth e-cigarette users were nearly twice as likely to have intentions to smoke conventional cigarettes compared with youth who had never tried e-cigarettes," study lead author Rebecca Bunnell, associate director for science in CDC's Office on Smoking and Health, said in the news release.
She and her colleagues also found that seeing tobacco ads increased teens' chances of smoking, and that the greater the number of tobacco ad sources -- such as on the Internet, television, movies, retail stores, and newspapers and magazines -- the more likely teens were to say they planned to start smoking.
Nearly 26 percent of teens who saw tobacco ads from three or four sources said they planned to start smoking, compared with about 20 percent among those who reported one to two ad sources, and 13 percent among those who saw no such ads.
Folan believes ads for e-cigarettes have a lot of influence, as well.
"As with tobacco advertising, the promotion of electronic cigarettes through several types of media will lead to an increase in use by adolescents," she said. "Current celebrity endorsement of electronic cigarettes will have the same impact on today's youth that tobacco advertisements of the past, by Hollywood icons, had on today's adult smokers."
The CDC report arrives the same day that the American Heart Association (AHA) called for e-cigarettes to be subject to the same laws that apply to tobacco products.
The AHA is also asking that the U.S. government ban the marketing and sale of e-cigarettes to young people.
"Recent studies raise concerns that e-cigarettes may be a gateway to traditional tobacco products for the nation's youth, and could renormalize smoking in our society," Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, said in an association news release. "These disturbing developments have helped convince the association that e-cigarettes need to be strongly regulated, thoroughly researched and closely monitored."
According to the U.S. Surgeon General, each day, more than 3,200 Americans smoke their first cigarette. Unless there is a major reduction in the nation's smoking rate, 5.6 million U.S. children alive today -- about one in every 13 -- will die prematurely from a smoking-related disease, according to the Surgeon General.
Smoking kills nearly half a million Americans a year, and more than 16 million live with smoking-related diseases, which cost $132 billion a year in direct health care expenses.
The study was published Aug. 25 in the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research.