E-cigarettes help adults quit smoking, but they encourage teens to start

A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that teens are particularly susceptible to digital advertisements for electronic cigarettes.

Neil Hall/Reuters
Electronic cigarette vapor flavors are displayed in a shop in London. Electronic cigarettes have been promoted as a tool to help smokers quit but a study released online Monday by the journal Pediatrics says an abundance of advertising is enticing more teens to try them.

As advertising for electronic cigarettes increases, so do does the number of teens trying them, a new study suggests.

The battery-powered cigarette alternative, known as an e-cigarettes or e-cig, is increasingly popular among mainstream tobacco companies. Functionality and appearance varies from model to model but they all feature a heating element that vaporizes a liquid nicotine solution into an inhalable substance.

The industry shift has garnered praise from a range of sources, including anti-tobacco advocates that hail e-cigarettes as a technological advance for current smokers looking to quit smoking traditional combustible cigarettes. But a new study is offering evidence that could damper enthusiasm: While e-cigarettes could be a boon for adult smokers hoping to quit, advertising for the devices are causing many teens to start.

"E-cigarette ads use many of the same themes used to sell cigarettes and other conventional tobacco products, such as independence, rebellion and sex," lead author Tushar Singh of the Office on Smoking and Health at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta told Reuters.

In August, British officials praised e-cigarettes after an independent review found "vaping" was 95 percent less harmful than smoking traditional cigarettes, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

Officials said that e-cigarettes could be used in a similar fashion to other smoking products designed to help smoker's quit, such as nicotine patches and gums.

But the new study on e-cigarette advertising from the CDC, published online Monday by the medical journal Pediatrics, indicates that while e-cigarettes could bridge the gap between smoking and quitting, it could also bridge the gap between not smoking and starting.

The researchers analyzed data from a recent survey of about 22,000 middle school and high school students across the nation to see which type of advertising was most persuasive. The survey asked the teens how often they used different tobacco products and how often they saw ads for them.

Middle school students who said they saw advertisements for e-cigarettes "most of the time" or "always" were 87 percent more likely to use e-cigarettes than teens who said they never saw advertisements. For high school students, the number was 71 percent more likely to use e-cigarettes.

For students who reported always seeing advertisements, the exposure was associated with much greater odds of use. Middle school students were 80 percent more likely to have used e-cigarettes if they always saw ads; and high school students were 54 percent more likely to have used them, compared to peers who have never seen those ads.

Last year, a CDC survey found that 3 million middle and high school students use e-cigarettes, up from 2.5 million in 2014.

In addition, adolescents who try e-cigarettes are more than twice as likely to try traditional cigarettes, previous research has suggested.

"The situation is compounded by the fact that e-cigarette online vendors are using social network services to market their products – and many online vendor websites are very easy for youth to enter and make purchases," Dr. Singh added in an e-mail to Reuters.

The study does have limitations. Researchers have to rely on the teenage participants to report their tobacco use accurately. Also, the students were surveyed at only a single point in time, the study can't track if advertising persuaded teens to try over time with more exposure.

But the results from the most recent study were mirrored by previous research on advertising for traditional cigarettes, says William Shadel, a senior behavioral scientist at RAND in Pittsburgh, who wasn't involved in the study.

The ubiquity of e-cigarette ads online could give teens a skewed perspective about just how common their use is and could add to the view that "vaping" is cool, Dr. Shadel told Reuters.

This report includes material from Reuters.

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