Why the CDC has it wrong about the rise in teen vaping

By Sally Satel

Source: American Enterprise Institute

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced soaring rates of e-cigarette use among teens. The number of middle and high school students using electronic cigarettes tripled between 2013 and 2014, according to a government survey of 22,000 schoolchildren. Dr. Thomas Frieden, CDC Director, called this trend “shocking” and “alarming.”

But wait. The news is good. The agency’s study does not confirm what many have feared about e-cigarettes, namely, that they are a “gateway” to cigarette smoking. If anything, it shows the opposite, making a solid case that e-cigarettes are diverting kids away from a lifetime of smoking and future disease.

Let’s look at the numbers. The 2014 National Youth Tobacco Study, as it is officially known, reveals that 13.4 percent of high school students reported using an e-cigarette at least once within the past month. That’s up from 4.5 percent the previous year.

At the same time, there was a historic drop in the smoking of traditional cigarettes: from 12.7 percent of high schoolers saying they had smoked in the last 30 days in 2013, to just 9.2 percent in 2014.

Likely, most teen vapers are former smokers who switched to e-cigarettes to help them quit or cut back on the real things. As Joe Stevonson, a high school senior in Jackson, Miss., told the New York Times, he used e-cigarettes to quit smoking after the habit started affecting his ability to play sports. A smaller number of teens who would have otherwise begun to smoke were probably re-directed into vaping.

A closer look at the NYTS data show that, overall, tobacco use in general hasn’t changed much over the years — about one in four high school students still report using a cigarette, hookah, chewing tobacco, e-cigarette at least once during the past month. What is striking, however, is how the nature of the use is changing with teens who are migrating from conventional, tar-laden cigarettes towards much safer e-cigarettes.

Given the choice of smoking versus vaping, e-cigs are far safer. The battery powered devices deliver vapor by heating a solution of nicotine and other chemicals. The FDA considers e-cigarettes a tobacco product because nicotine is derived from tobacco. But unlike conventional cigarettes that burn tobacco leaf, e-cigarettes contain no tobacco and thus produce none of the carcinogenic tar and gases contained in smoke.

As for nicotine, it is addictive but otherwise generally benign in healthy, non-pregnant individuals. In fact e-cigarettes may have low to no nicotine content. There is a good chance that a lot of teen vapers use the nicotine-free variety. A non-smoking teen who thinks vaping is cool doesn’t require nicotine replacement.

Recent data from Canada suggest, but do not prove, this dynamic. The Forum Poll, Canada’s leading public opinion poll, found that one-tenth of over 2,100 adult vapers surveyed had never smoked. Of this subset, fully 96 percent used a nicotine-free solution. According to Poll analysts, this “would discount the theory that vaping is a gateway to smoking.”

It is shameful that the CDC, the nation’s leading institute of public health, doesn’t acknowledge the value of e-cigarettes as a substitute for cancer-causing cigarettes.

In an ad campaign launched three weeks ago, Dr. Frieden, a longtime critic of vaping, went so far as to warn that e-cigarettes do not help people quit and even lead to collapsed lungs. These claims are patently false but they are part of a larger anti-e-cigarette agenda that simply keeps smokers puffing on deadly cigarettes – after all, why switch if vaping is as bad as smoking?

Ideally, teens would not vape. But recent sensationalist headlines about the chemicals in e-cigarette vapor must be put in proper toxicological perspective. Propylene glycol, contained in the nicotine solution, is used in asthma and nicotine inhalers. There may be traces of nitrosamines and metals such as cadmium, lead and nickel in the vapor but in amounts and forms considered nontoxic.

There remain questions surrounding long-term exposure to propylene glycol, and this needs to be tracked, but it is virtually certain that even continued use of e-cigs is far safer than smoking.

Director Frieden is playing fast and loose with public trust. It is time he defended his misleading rhetoric about e-cigarettes to members of the oversight subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

His latest alarmist stance about vaping corrupting the youth of America is belied by his agency’s own data which tell a different, more encouraging story: e-cigs are not leading to smoking and may well be a diversion from it.

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2 responses to “Why the CDC has it wrong about the rise in teen vaping

  1. Considering that e-cigarettes and vaping haven’t been around that long, of course you would see year-over-year increases in use. There’s the newness and novelty of vaping, plus any teenager who chooses e-cigs over regular cigarettes is actually making a smarter choice. It’s not the best choice, like not using nicotine at all, but at least it’s a better choice.

    And what about those who suffer from attention deficit problems who choose to self-medicate by vaping nicotine instead of taking a pill made by Big Pharma? Which is the better choice?

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    • Thanks for the comment. What you expressed gets at the heart of harm reduction. Unlike those of a more puritan and “zero tolerance” perspective, harm reductionists advocate better access to less harmful alternatives other than being completely “drug-free” (which is an impossible goal anyway since some drugs are endogenous or produced within the body). Unfortunately, some are so indoctrinated by opinions of what is a drug and what constitutes a “good” or “bad” drug, they’re unable to objectively judge relative risks and benefits.

      Like

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