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So what's in those e-cigarettes?
02:08 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

E-cigarettes are now the most commonly used form of tobacco among youths in the United States

E-cigarette use among high school students increased 900% from 2011-15

Developing brains of teens, young adults are more vulnerable to negative health effects of nicotine use

CNN  — 

The nation’s top doctor is sounding the alarm on e-cigarettes, especially when used by teens and young adults.

“These products are now the most commonly used form of tobacco among youth in the United States, surpassing conventional tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco and hookahs,” wrote Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the US surgeon general, in a report released Thursday. In fact, use of e-cigarettes among high school students increased by 900% from 2011 to 2015, according to the report.

Specifically, among middle and high school students, use of e-cigarettes has more than tripled since 2011, the report indicates. Meanwhile, after a period of relative stability from 2011 to 2013, vaping among young adults between 18 and 24 years old more than doubled from 2013 to 2014.

Yet nicotine can damage the developing teen brain while leading to addiction.

“Compared with older adults, the brain of youth and young adults is more vulnerable to the negative consequences of nicotine exposure,” noted Murthy.

“As surgeon general and as a new father, I am urging all parents to take a stand against e-cigarette use by our nation’s young people,” Murthy said Thursday at a news conference where he also announced an interactive website with information and resources for parents.

Why vape?

Among their reasons for using e-cigarettes, teens and young adults commonly say they are curious. They also like the flavorings. In fact, among teens and young adults up to age 25, flavored e-cigarette use exceeds rates among older adult adults.

“I loved trying flavors,” said Tyra Nicolay, 16, a tobacco control advocate who spoke at the news conference. A former e-cigarette user, Nicolay added that “there are over 7,000 e-cigarette flavors” and said she did not know they could be addictive.

Teens and young adults also reported using electronic tobacco products because they are less harmful or less toxic than conventional cigarettes and it helps them avoid indoor smoking restrictions. But e-cigarettes are strongly associated with smoking in these age groups.

In 2015, for instance, nearly 60% of high school students were both current smokers and current vapers. The report notes that e-cigarettes are also used to smoke marijuana and possibly other illicit drugs.

“After having made tremendous progress in decreasing smoking rates, we may be now creating a new generation of nicotine addicts who will go on to be lifelong nicotine addicts, have difficulty stopping and perhaps start smoking regular cigs as well,” said Dr. Benard Dreyer, who, as president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, speaks for 66,000 primary care pediatricians and other pediatric specialists.

Not harmless

Though the numbers in the report are new, the science is not, Dreyer said, underscoring the report’s findings about brain development.

“I think most people think your brain stops developing when you’re 5 or something, and certainly there’s a huge amount of development in the first couple of years in life, but we know that adolescent brains are actually very significant in development, and nicotine is a neurotoxin, and we know that it can cause lifelong problems for kids, including mental health problems, behavioral problems and actual changes in brain structure,” he said.

Echoing findings in the report, Dreyer noted that the other ingredients in the vaping liquids may be causing harm as they get heated and aerosolized and enter the lungs. Secondhand aerosol exhaled into the air by e-cigarette users can expose others to potentially harmful chemicals, the report found. Researchers suspect that these chemicals are dangerous, even if they have not proved it or figured out at what dose.

Erika Sward, assistant vice president of national advocacy at the American Lung Association, also expressed concern.

“Some of those chemicals are carcinogenic,” she said, explaining that ingredients in vaping liquids have been linked to cancer when used in other ways. “We don’t know, walking down the line, what disease outcomes may occur. The other thing we’ve known for a while is that ingestion of nicotine, either through topical or by drinking, nicotine can cause acute poisoning and death.”