Viewpoint: Leave Junior Alone About His E-Cigs

Reports of kids taking to e-cigarettes are exaggerated. But would it be so terrible if they did?

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Suffer the little children: When they’re not busy organizing rainbow parties, butt-chugging beer, home-brewing jenkem (look it up, preferably on an empty stomach), or dropping LSD and staring into the sun until they go blind, they are devising far-more pedestrian ways to freak out their parents.

The latest social panic related to the kids these days involves them – wait for it – experimenting with a safer alternative to smoking tobacco. What kind of monsters are we raising, exactly?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that over the past couple of years the percentage of middle- and high-school students who have ever tried electronic cigarettes has doubled. That ostensibly shocking finding has led to a rush of frenzied stories breathlessly detailing how “teens could be on the way to a life-long addiction.”

But before you drop your martini glass and start rifling through your kids’ dresser drawers looking for their stash, take a deep, calming breath. Maybe hit the yoga studio. Go to your happy place. As with most worrying trends related to kids, there’s much less here to worry about than it might seem at first blush.

E-cigarettes are battery-powered contraptions that heat and vaporize a hit of nicotine that is inhaled by the “vaper.” They are tobacco-less, and it’s the tobacco smoke that contains carcinogens. They’ve been around for about a decade and so far the science on the matter finds that they present no serious health risks to primary users or to bystanders. Boston University’s Michael Siegel stresses that e-cigarettes are an incredibly useful tool for reducing or stopping tobacco smoking altogether. “Literally hundreds of thousands of U.S. smokers have successfully quit or cut down substantially on the amount they smoke thanks to electronic cigarettes,” he writes in The New York Times. “They are helping to reduce disease among smokers and nonsmokers alike.”

During 2011-2012, reports CDC, the percentage of students in grades 6 through 12 who have tried an e-cigarette at least once bumped up from 3.3 percent to 6.8 percent. For middle schoolers, the percentage exploded all the way from 1.4 percent to 2.7 percent, while among high schoolers the numbers jumped from 4.7 percent to 10 percent.

Those numbers are for lifetime use. The percentages for “current use,” which indicates having puffed on an e-cigarette at least once in the past 30 days, are tinier still. (And not to be confused with “daily” use, which the CDC doesn’t count but must be even closer to zero.) For all students, current use grew from 1.1 percent to 2.1 percent, for middle-schoolers from 0.6 percent to 1.1 percent, and for high schoolers from 1.5 percent to 2.8 percent.

How do those fractions compare to actual use of real, carcinogenic cigarettes? Extremely favorably. According the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, by the time kids are 20 years old, about 60 percent have tried a tobacco product at least once and 35 percent report being current users (see table 2.5b).

E-cigarette use – a better term is experimentation – among kids is on the rise because the devices are growing in popularity among the legal adult population. Parents are right to pay attention to what sorts of shenanigans their children are getting up to, but there’s simply no reason to sound the alarm over kids’ growing familiarity with a safer alternative to cigarettes. As the CDC itself reports, the trend lines on smoking among all age groups remain on the downward slope.  Only the jumpiest of parents will agree with the agency’s director, Tom Frieden, who calls the rise “deeply troubling.”

Indeed, the only troubling sign surrounding e-cigarettes is not that they are gaining in popularity, but the insane – and scientifically unsound – push to ban or tightly regulate their use. As Boston University’s Seigel notes, many anti-smoking activists “oppose these products because they are blinded by ideology: they find it difficult, if not impossible, to endorse a behavior that looks like smoking, even though it is literally saving people’s lives.” That sort of blinkered attitude among prohibitionists – not Junior’s curiosity about vaping – is what’s worthy of concern.