Experts are concerned about the new trend, noting how unhealthy smoking can be for young adults.
The decline in tobacco use among teenagers seen in recent years may have been short-lived as the popularity of e-cigarettes among young people increases.
Scientists from the University of Nebraska Medical Center noticed this trend while studying data from the 78,000 teens and young adults who participated in the National Youth Tobacco Survey between 2014 and 2017.
The researchers published their findings in JAMA Pediatrics.
The prevalence of current use of all tobacco products in young people decreased from 17 percent in 2014 to less than 14 percent in 2017.
The number of high school students using flavored tobacco fell from 69 percent in 2014 to 57 percent in 2016, but this number increased to 63 percent in 2017.
Hongying Dai, PhD, lead study author and an associate professor in the Department of Biostatistics at the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, attributes the uptick largely to an increase in flavored e-cigarettes.
As flavored tobacco and other tobacco product use decreased or leveled off, flavored e-cigarette use continued to rise into 2018 among high school students.
The number of e-cigarette users increased by 1.5 million students from 2017 to 2018, according to a new U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) report.
In that report, 31 percent of high school students who vape said they chose e-cigarettes because of the availability of flavored products.
“The perception that e-cigarettes are a safe alternative, along with many new products geared towards young people, is a big part of the rise,” said Dr. Steven Rowe, a professor in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“This is alarming because it’s grown faster than expected, and the perception that it’s safe is clearly wrong,” he told Healthline.
Cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 6 million deaths around the world each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That includes 480,000 deaths per year in the United States.
The CDC also reports that for each person who dies because of smoking, at least 30 people live with serious smoking-related illnesses.
The Office of the U.S. Surgeon General reports that if smoking continues at current rates, 5.6 million, or 1 in every 13 of today’s children, will ultimately die prematurely from a smoking-related illness.
The FDA unveiled the largest coordinated enforcement effort in the agency’s history last summer. It issued more than 1,300 warning letters and fines to retailers that sold e-cigarette products, such as JUUL, to underage youth during a nationwide undercover operation.
The Surgeon General also released an advisory report in December stating that e-cigarette use among youth has skyrocketed in the past year at a rate of “epidemic proportions.”
The press release indicated that high school students using e-cigarettes within the past 30 days had grown to more than 75 percent. There was an increase of almost 50 percent among middle school age students as well.
“We need to protect our kids from all tobacco products, including all shapes and sizes of e-cigarettes,” said Surgeon General Vice Admiral Jerome M. Adams in a statement.
“We have never seen use of any substance by America’s young people rise as rapidly as e-cigarette use is,” added U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar.
The FDA and the HHS agree that further research is needed to fully understand the effects of e-cigarettes.
The University of Rochester Medical Center and the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center has been awarded a $19 million grant funded by the National Cancer Institute to study the issue.
Although many look to e-cigarettes as a “safe alternative,” some research shows that smoking during adolescence increases the risk of developing both cognitive impairment as well as potential psychiatric disorders later in life.
Nicotine can affect the areas of the brain responsible for memory, learning, attention, and brain plasticity. Early exposure to nicotine can have long-term effects.
“We cannot allow cigarettes to become an on-ramp to nicotine addiction for younger Americans,” Azar said.
“Vapor with nicotine is highly addictive, and young people are especially at risk for addiction,” Dr. Rowe said. “Deciding to smoke is regretted by many people even a short time later, after addiction has already taken hold.”