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Do teens need help kicking the vape habit? The FDA thinks so

"There is an epidemic of use of e-cigarettes going -- a 78 percent increase ... in just the past year," Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams
Image: An unidentified high school student vapes near school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on April 11, 2018.
An unidentified high school student vapes near school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on April 11, 2018.Steven Senne / AP file

The Food and Drug Administration thinks that teen addiction to vaping is so bad that it may have to encourage the development of products to help them kick this new habit of not smoking, but of vaping.

It’s ironic, since e-cigarette companies have long positioned their products as aids to help people quit the more dangerous, so-called combustible tobacco products.

But, given the giant spike in teen e-cigarette use, it may be time, the FDA says.

“FDA is holding a public hearing to obtain the public's perspectives on the potential role drug therapies may play in the broader effort to eliminate youth e-cigarette and other tobacco product use,” the agency said in a statement Monday.

The hearing was originally scheduled for earlier this month, but has now been moved to Jan. 18.

"There is an epidemic of use of e-cigarettes going -- a 78 percent increase in high schoolers using these products in just the past year," Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams told NBC News. "For the first time in over forty years, we've seen a doubling of the rate of use of a substance in just over a year."

Earlier Monday, a federally sponsored survey confirmed an enormous increase in the number of high school students who vape. The annual survey of substance use among high school students showed 37 percent of seniors have tried vaping, up from just under 28 percent in 2017. Nearly 21 percent of seniors said they had recently vaped in 2018, compared to 11 percent in 2017.

That’s a huge jump, and it may be time to look for ways to help teenagers shake this new addiction, the FDA said.

“FDA is not aware of any research examining either drug or behavioral interventions for the cessation of youth or adult e-cigarette use,” the agency said in a statement.

“In contrast, there is a large body of research on adult smoking cessation, and multiple drugs for smoking cessation are approved for the adult population,” it added.

These include:

  • Nicorette gum and lozenge
  • NicoDerm and Habitrol patches
  • Nicotrol nasal spray and inhaler
  • Zyban and Chantix pills

The FDA has already announced efforts to help keep e-cigarettes out of the hands of teens. But given that so many teens already vape, and that most vaping products contain highly addictive nicotine, it’s worth asking whether teens need help.

“FDA is interested in whether there is a population of youth e-cigarette users who would be likely to benefit from the use of drug therapies for e-cigarette cessation,” the FDA said.

Adams said that it is different when adult smokers user e-cigarettes.

"For adults, e-cigarettes may have the potential to reduce risk for current smokers if they completely transition from cigarettes to e-cigarettes; however, a majority of adults who use e-cigarettes also smoke cigarettes," he said.

"For youth, the use of multiple tobacco products puts youth at even greater risk for addiction and tobacco-related harms."

"It illustrates the fact that we now have all these kids who’ve become addicted to nicotine because of the skyrocketing popularity of Juul and the other e-cigs," said a spokesperson for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances that people use.

“In fact, it may be harder to quit smoking than to stop using cocaine or opiates like heroin,” the American Cancer Society says.

“In 2012, researchers reviewed 28 different studies of people who were trying to quit using the substance they were addicted to. They found that about 18 percent were able to quit drinking, and more than 40 percent were able to quit opiates or cocaine, but only 8 percent were able to quit smoking.”

Studies also show that using nicotine can affect the development of a person’s brain. The brain is still growing and changing in teens and adolescents.

"Nicotine exposure during adolescence can impact learning, memory, and attention," Adams said.

"Using nicotine in adolescence can also increase risk for future addiction to other drugs," he added.

"In addition to nicotine, the aerosol that users inhale and exhale from e-cigarettes can potentially expose both themselves and bystanders to other harmful substances, including heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, and ultrafine particles that can be inhaled deeply into the lungs."