The U.S. surgeon general said Thursday that e-cigarette use poses a significant and avoidable health risk to young people.
"We already know that e-cigarettes have the potential to cause lasting harm to the health of young users," said Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. "Most contain nicotine, a highly addictive drug that can damage normal development of the brain – a process that continues until about age 25."
Murthy's comments were part of a report released Thursday on rising e-cigarette use by people under 25.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while use of most tobacco products — such as cigarettes and smokeless tobacco — by high school students has declined in recent years, the use of e-cigarettes increased dramatically between 2011 and 2015. In April, the CDC estimated nearly 2.4 million high school students and about 620,000 middle school students were using e-cigarettes at least once a month.
Murthy said advertising was partly to blame, writing in a statement:
"As [e-cigarettes] have been advertised more heavily, they have become much more popular among youth in middle and high school, and among young adults ages 18-25. One of every 6 high school students has used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days, and these products are now more popular with middle and high school students than traditional cigarettes."
A 2014 survey of 22,000 middle and high school students found children who are exposed to e-cigarette advertising are more likely to use e-cigarettes. The CDC reported earlier this year that spending on e-cigarette advertising rose from $6.4 million in 2011 to an estimated $115 million in 2014.
The surgeon general's report also emphasizes that e-cigarettes can lead young people to use other tobacco products such as cigarettes, potentially as a result of becoming addicted to nicotine.
"Some studies show that non-smoking youth who use e-cigarettes are more likely to try conventional cigarettes in the future than non-smoking youth who do not use e-cigarettes," the report says, and notes that "among high school students and young adults who use tobacco, more use both e-cigarettes and burned tobacco products than use e-cigarettes alone."
The Food and Drug Administration tightened regulations on e-cigarettes earlier this year, as we have reported. The new regulations require people to prove they are 18 in order to buy e-cigarettes and require companies to disclose the ingredients in the vapor, and warn consumers if they contain nicotine.
Unlike regulations on cigarettes and chewing tobacco, the FDA did not ban the targeting of minors in e-cigarette advertisements, or prohibit the sale of candy-flavored vapors that could appeal to children.
Another reason young people should refrain from using e-cigarettes is that many the potential health risks of e-cigarettes have not been adequately studied, and so shouldn't be used by people whose brains are still developing, the surgeon general's office argues.
Unlike other tobacco products that have been proved to cause potentially lethal health problems, "scientists are still working to understand more fully the health effects and harmful doses of e-cigarette contents when they are heated and turned into an aerosol," the report says.
"Your kids are not an experiment," Murthy concludes in an accompanying public service video. "Protect them from e-cigarettes."