WASHINGTON — The share of middle and high school students who tried e-cigarettes doubled in 2012 from the previous year, federal data show. The rise is prompting concerns among health officials that the new devices could be creating as many health problems as they are solving.
One in 10 high school students said they had tried an e-cigarette last year, according to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up from 1 in 20 in 2011. About 3 percent said they had used one in the previous 30 days. In total, 1.8 million middle and high school students said they had tried e-cigarettes in 2012.
“This is really taking off among kids,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC.
E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that deliver nicotine, which is vaporized to form an aerosol mist. Producers promote them as a more healthful alternative to smoking, but researchers say their health effects are not yet clear, although most acknowledge they are less harmful than traditional cigarettes. The Food and Drug Administration does not yet regulate them.
One of the biggest concerns among health officials is the potential for e-cigarettes to become a path to smoking among young people. The survey found that most students who had tried e-cigarettes had smoked cigarettes.
But 1 in 5 middle school students who said they had tried e-cigarettes reported never having smoked a conventional cigarette. Among high school students, 7 percent who had tried an e-cigarette said they had never smoked a traditional cigarette.
Frieden said the adolescent brain is more susceptible to nicotine, and the trend of rising use could hook young people.
Murray S. Kessler, chief executive of Lorillard Inc., a North Carolina tobacco company that owns blu eCigs, said the rise in youth usage was unacceptable and added that the company would welcome restrictions to access for children. Kessler, however, said he hoped that any new regulations would not hinder “what may be the most significant harm reduction opportunity that has ever been made available to smokers.’’
The sharp rise among students mirrored that among adult users, and researchers said it appeared to be driven, at least in part, by a national marketing campaign. (Producers say the ads are not aimed at adolescents.) E-cigarettes also come in flavors, which were banned in traditional cigarettes in 2009.
About 6 percent of all adults — not just smokers — reported having tried e-cigarettes in 2011, according to a CDC survey, about double the number from 2010.