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 / Updated  / Source: NBC News

Electronic cigarette use among American middle and high school students tripled in 2014 while cigarette use fell to record lows, U.S. health officials reported Thursday.

The findings may intensify debate over whether e-cigarettes are a boon or bane to public health.

Among high school students, e-cigarette use jumped to 13.4 percent in 2014 from 4.5 percent in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cigarette use over the same period fell to 9.2 percent from 12.7 percent.

Overall, tobacco use among high school students grew to 24.6 percent from 22.9 percent. The data was drawn from the 2014 National Youth Tobacco Survey.

"Nicotine exposure at a young age may cause lasting harm to brain development, promote addiction, and lead to sustained tobacco use," Dr. Tom Frieden, CDC director, said in a statement.

But e-cigarette proponents argue the CDC data could equally suggest smoking rates fell because young people took up e-cigarettes instead of traditional cigarettes.

"There is no firm conclusion that one can draw from correlational data," Jed Rose, director of the Center for Smoking Cessation at Duke University Medical Center, said in an interview. "But it is equally amenable to the interpretation that e-cigarettes are diverting young people away from cigarettes."


-- Reuters