NEW YORK — Kenny, a high school senior in Weston, Fla., likes to puff e-cigarettes during debate practice. Tom, a sophomore in New York’s Westchester County, takes them to track practice. Joe, a senior in Jackson, Miss., uses them in the morning as a coffee-flavored way to pass the time.
E-cigarettes have arrived in the life of the American teenager.
Use of the devices among middle and high school students tripled from 2013 to 2014, according to federal data released Thursday, bringing the share of high school students who use them to 13 percent — more than smoke traditional cigarettes. The sharp rise, together with a substantial increase in the use of hookah pipes, led to 400,000 additional young people using a tobacco product in 2014, the first increase in years, though researchers pointed out it fell within the margin of error. About a quarter of all high school students and 8 percent of middle school students — 4.6 million young people all together — used tobacco in some form last year.
The numbers came as a surprise and seemed to pitch policy makers into uncharted territory. The Food and Drug Administration took its first tentative step toward regulating e-cigarettes last year, but the process has been slow and many experts worry that habits are forming far faster than rules are being written. Because e-cigarettes are so new, little is known about their long-term health effects, leaving regulators scrambling to gather data.
But the data also told another story. From 2011 to 2014, the share of high school students who smoked traditional cigarettes declined substantially, to 9 percent from 16 percent. The shift suggested that some teenage smokers may be using e-cigarettes instead. Smoking is still the single biggest cause of preventable death in the United States, killing more than 480,000 Americans a year, and most scientists agree that e-cigarettes, which deliver the nicotine but not the dangerous tar and other chemicals, are likely to be far less harmful than traditional cigarettes.
In interviews, teenagers said that e-cigarettes had become almost as common at school as laptops, a change from several years ago, when few had seen the gadgets. But opinions were mixed on why they had caught on. A significant share said they were using the devices to quit smoking cigarettes or marijuana, while others said they had never smoked but liked being part of the trend and enjoyed the taste — two favorite flavors were Sweet Tart and Unicorn Puke, which one student described as “every flavor Skittle compressed into one.”
Joe Stevonson, 18, the senior at a high school in Jackson, said he used e-cigarettes to quit smoking, after the habit started affecting his ability to play sports.
As for whether he still craved cigarettes, “the only thing that’s really missing is feeling like your entire mouth is coated in dirt,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of people who don’t smoke pick them up because it looks cool. But for every person I’ve met like that, I’ve met another using it like it’s a medicine against cigarettes.”
The rise of e-cigarettes, which was captured in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s annual youth tobacco survey of about 20,000 schoolchildren, prompted an outcry from antitobacco advocates.
“This is a really bad thing,” said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the director of the CDC, who noted that research had found that nicotine harms the developing brain. “This is another generation being hooked by the tobacco industry. It makes me angry.”