Are electronic cigarettes a bridge to help people quit smoking or a gateway to start smoking young? Either way, a leading heart health organization says it's high time that federal laws prohibit the sale of these devices to minors, and it recommends that e-cigarettes be regulated along with traditional combustible cigarettes.
Smoking rates in the U.S. have dropped steadily over the last several decades, but e-cigarette use is on the rise. The battery-powered, pen-sized devices, which release nicotine-laced water vapor instead of smoke, are escaping the regulatory scrutiny that traditional light-a-match cigarettes receive, says the
"E-cigarette use and acceptance of e-cigarettes has the potential to renormalize smoking behavior," association officials wrote in a new policy statement in the journal Circulation.
They warn that the current holes in regulation could have far-reaching consequences.
"Unregulated e-cigarette use also has the potential to erode gains in smoking cessation and smoke-free laws," they wrote.
They may have reason to worry. The heart association's policy statement comes on the heels of a study in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research showing that the number of youths (grades 6-12) who had used e-cigarettes more than tripled from 2011 to 2013, skyrocketing from 79,000 to more than 263,000.
The study, conducted by researchers from the
"E-cigarette use was associated with increased intentions to smoke cigarettes," the CDC researchers wrote.
That trend may not abate if current marketing practices keep up; according to the heart association paper, youth exposure to e-cigarette ads shot up more than 250% from 2011 to 2013.
"Such marketing practices are likely to recruit a new generation of nicotine addicts," the policy authors wrote. "The public health community is unified in developing regulation and passing legislation that restricts the marketing and access of e-cigarettes to minors, similar to existing laws restricting marketing and youth access to combustible products."
More research needs to be done on the effects of e-cigarettes, whether positive or negative, officials said. In the meantime, the heart association tweeted, "We continue to encourage clinicians to use proven smoking cessation strategies first, use e-cigs only as last resort."