Databyte: Nico-teen Troubles

Increased nontraditional tobacco use in middle and high school aged kids

Published on November 21, 2013by Patches Magarro

Tobacco use continues to decline among teens — high five!

Less teens are smoking — fist bump!

But there are some figures smoldering in the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that are troubling. Teens are increasing their use of certain tobacco products, and it’s not their mothers’ Marlboros.

Tobacco use among school-aged children is of vital importance because it is when most life-long smoking begins. Eighty-eight (88) percent of daily adult smokers began their habit during adolescence.

Cigarette smoking among high school and middle school children has declined consistently since 2000, including the years 2011 to 2012, as seen in the graph. However, there is cause for concern over increased use of nontraditional tobacco products such as hookahs and e-cigarettes.

In middle schoolers, cigar use declined from 3.5 to 2.8 percent and cigarette use decreased from 4.3 to 3.5 percent. In high schoolers, cigar use did increase from 11.6 to 12.6 percent, while cigarette use has declined from 15.8 to 14.0 percent. Meanwhile, hookah and e-cigarette use has increased from 2011 to 2012 in both high schooler and middle schoolers, a potentially disconcerting trend.

A hookah is a water pipe that uses a burning piece of charcoal to heat tobacco, frequently mixed with other items such as fruit. According to the CDC’s data, both middle and high school students reported 30 percent more hookah smoking than in the previous year.

The flavor and scent of hookah smoke is less off-putting than that of traditional cigarettes due to the sweet additives mixed into the tobacco. So children who would reject smoking on that basis may be more willing to try tobacco smoked in a hookah.

teen tobacco 2

Image by Joshua Brooks. Data from Tobacco Product Use Among Middle and High School Students – United States, 2011 and 2012.*

Some people hold the misperception that tobacco smoked in a hookah is less harmful than that in a cigarette. It seems more natural, it can be mixed with wholesome items like fruit, and it does not have warnings like those on the side of a pack of cigarettes. However, the truth is, smoking from a hookah is potentially worse than smoking cigarettes. Hookah smokers can be exposed to more toxins than those who use cigarettes, ingest the same amount of nicotine and, due to questionable cleaning and sharing practices, may contract infectious diseases.

For similar reasons, e-cigarettes are a dangerous lure for teens. In addition to the aforementioned lack of noxious smell, e-cigarettes don’t even have smoke. (Users are referred to as “vapers“). It is possible that some children do not smoke cigarettes because they don’t want to compromise their athletic performance. When the smoke is removed, as is the case with e-cigarettes, so is that particular deterrent. No statistics are available to identify which specific attributes account for the 80 percent rise in e-cigarette use by school-aged children.

Taste could be one factor.

E-cigarettes come in many kid-friendly flavors. Flavors other than menthol have been banned from cigarettes since 2009 due to the greater attraction such products had for children. E-cigarettes have no such restrictions and are aimed at the youth market with such flavors as cotton candy and gummy bear. These little atomizers devoid of smoke and packed with candy flavor could ignite an addiction to nicotine in children who wouldn’t have considered smoking conventional cigarettes.

In addition to nicotine addiction, the safety of e-cigarettes is hazy. More research needs to be done to put scientific data behind the claims for and against these relatively new products. So in the meanwhile, the Mayo Clinic website advises, “The safe play is to say no to electronic cigarettes.”

That message still rings true for all tobacco products. The safest, and healthiest, play is to never start using them in the first place.

Edited by Joshua Brooks.

*Editorial Note: Please note the differences between our databyte and a traditional bar graph. Our graphic representation of the CDC’s data is presented for visual impact and ease of comparison among select tobacco products and their use by middle and high school-aged children. On a strict statistical basis, each bar in a bar graph would represent only one cohort. Each “cigarette” in our graphic denotes both age groups, and since the two groups are mutually exclusive, their percentages of use are not meant to be aggregated.