New kinds of tobacco products like e-cigarettes and hookahs are catching on fast with U.S. middle school and high school students, even as conventional cigarette use holds steady, government researchers said Thursday.
It’s a worrisome rise, they say, because the products are often specifically targeted to teens as better choices than regular smokes.
“The increase in use of electronic cigarettes and hookah tobacco could be attributed to low price, an increase in marketing, availability and visibility of these products, and the perception that these products might be ‘safer’ alternatives to cigarettes,” officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote in a new report.
Just weeks ago, government officials released data showing that the percentage of high-schoolers who had tried e-cigarettes had doubled to 10 percent between 2011 and 2012.
But the new numbers confirm that although e-cigarettes are used by a tiny proportion of kids — 1.1 percent of middle-schoolers and 2.8 percent of high schoolers — use in the past 30 days jumped more than 83 percent among middle-school youth and 86 percent among high-schoolers between 2011 and 2012. And hookah use among high school students jumped 30 percent, to about 5.4 percent of the nearly 27,000 students included in the National Youth Tobacco Survey.
“It’s not like the bongs that old folks think of,” said Peter Hamm of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an advocacy group. “You look at these numbers and you say 6 percent of high school kids are using hookah pipes?”
Not exactly. Many young teens are buying small, disposable hookahs that dispense tobacco in flavors like mocha latte, jungle juice and coconut twist. They buy them at the same convenience stores, gas stations and head shops that sell e-cigarettes — pencil-shaped devices that use a cartridge to deliver an aerosol mist containing nicotine with flavorings. They sell small cigars, too, which are also a troubling trend, the report found.
Cigar use climbed overall from 11.6 percent to 12.6 percent in a year among all high school students, but it jumped from 11.7 percent to 16.7 percent in black kids, more than double the rate since 2009, the report warned.
Nearly 17 percent of all high school boys in 2012 used cigars in the past month, about equal to the proportion that smoked cigarettes.
“The report raises a red flag about newer tobacco products,” said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said in a statement. “Cigars and hookah tobacco are smoked tobacco — addictive and deadly. We need effective action to protect our kids from addiction to nicotine.”
The Food and Drug Administration regulates most tobacco products, but not e-cigarettes, although the agency is pushing for oversight there, too.
Overall, nearly 7 percent of middle-school kids and 23 percent of high-school kids used tobacco of any kind in 2012, figures that dropped slightly, but not significantly, from the previous year.
Nearly 90 percent of adult smokers in the U.S. began smoking by age 18, the CDC said. Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the U.S. and it kills 440,000 people — about 1,200 a day — every year. More than 2,000 teens and young adults become daily smokers every day, the CDC said.
But tobacco companies work hard to reach that market, Hamm said.
“If you’re not addicted to nicotine by the time you’re 21, the odds are against you getting addicted,” said Hamm. “They have to get them while they’re young or they don’t get them at all.”
For their part, tobacco companies like R.J. Reynolds of Winston-Salem, N.C., say that they market their products to consenting adults who understand the risks of smoking.
“Minors should never use tobacco products and adults who do not use or have quit using tobacco products should not start,” the company says on its website.
JoNel Aleccia is a senior health reporter with NBC News. Reach her on Twitter at @JoNel_Aleccia or send her an email.