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It's sure looking like electronic cigarettes are more than a passing fad, and that apparently is true for kids as well. E-cigs came on the market in 2006. And now the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the devices are now more popular among kids than conventional cigarettes. There is a debate now over what this means for public health, as NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Unlike combustible cigarettes that make smoke, electronic cigarettes create a nicotine vapor to inhale. And according to the 2014 National Youth Tobacco Survey, 2.5 million middle and high school students are using e-cigarettes, triple the number from the year before. CDC director Tom Frieden calls the increase alarming.
TOM FRIEDEN: We need to stop before another generation gets hooked on nicotine.
ELLIOTT: Another youth smoking fad, the hookah water pipe, is also on the rise, with use doubling in the past year. At the same time, traditional cigarette smoking showed a sharp decline, down to about 9 percent. By comparison, 13 percent of high schoolers surveyed said they'd tried e-cigarettes. Frieden says no matter the delivery device, nicotine is dangerous for kids whose brains are developing. He blames the rising popularity of e-cigarettes on the industry's aggressive advertising and promotion tactics.
FRIEDEN: What we've seen in the marketing is essentially a "Mad Men"-come-to-e-cigarettes. Marketing that we're seeing for e-cigarettes looks just like tobacco marketing did in the 1950s.
ELLIOTT: He says sweet flavors, cartoon characters and provocative ads are part of the toolkit.
(SOUNDBITE OF E-CIGARETTE AD)
JENNY MCCARTHY: You know, I love being single. But here's what I don't love, a kiss that tastes like an ashtray.
ELLIOTT: This ad is a celebrity endorsement from a former Playboy playmate.
(SOUNDBITE OF E-CIGARETTE AD)
MCCARTHY: I'm Jenny McCarthy, and I finally found a smarter alternative to cigarettes, blu eCigs. Blu satisfies me.
ELLIOTT: Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, says the government has been too slow to react.
MATT MYERS: The explosive rise in e-cigarette use threatens to undermine literally 50 years of progress in reducing how glamorous teens see smoking.
ELLIOTT: Myers says the Obama administration needs to move quicker than it has to curtail the marketing of e-cigarettes and make sure kids can't get them. The Food and Drug Administration has yet to implement any rules, despite saying four years ago it would do so. But how best to regulate e-cigarettes is complicated by the lack of consensus among anti-smoking activists as to whether they help people quit smoking conventional cigarettes. University of Michigan public health professor Kenneth Warner says for all the alarm about e-cigarette experimentation, don't lose sight of the good news from the Youth Tobacco Survey - the sharp decline in teen smoking.
KENNETH WARNER: To see that drop is astonishing. It's fabulous for public health.
ELLIOTT: Warner says the numbers taken together raise a question.
WARNER: Is it possible that kids are starting to substitute the use of e-cigarettes for conventional cigarettes? And if so, if e-cigarettes are helping to drive down cigarette smoking, that could represent a positive development.
ELLIOTT: On the other hand, he says, it could turn out that e-cigarette use encourages kids to graduate to more harmful tobacco products. And that uncertainty is why public health officials are so concerned about this latest youth smoking snapshot. Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.