By Randy Dotinga
MONDAY, July 11, 2016 (HealthDay News) — Declines in teenage smoking in the United States may be slowing because of the popularity of electronic cigarettes, a new study contends.
"We found evidence that e-cigarettes are recruiting at least some youth who likely would never have smoked combustible cigarettes," said study lead author Jessica Barrington-Trimis.
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E-cigarettes are electronic devices that vaporize a fluid, which is then inhaled. The liquid can include nicotine and various flavorings.
"We estimate that just under 5 percent of teens in our study likely would not have used cigarettes if e-cigarettes were not available," added Barrington-Trimis. She's a postdoctoral researcher in the Tobacco Center of Regulatory Science at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
According to the study, the number of 12th-graders in southern California who reported smoking in the past 30 days dropped from 19 percent in 1995 to about 9 percent in 2004 and then leveled off, to just under 8 percent in 2014.
But when researchers combined traditional smoking and e-cigarette use, the rate among 12th-graders was nearly 14 percent in 2014.
"When we calculated the total prevalence of e-cigarette or cigarette use in 2014, we found it was far higher than in 2004, before e-cigarettes were available, and as high or higher than the rate of smoking in 2001," Barrington-Trimis said.
While their findings aren't definitive, the researchers believe e-cigarettes—in use since 2007—have tempted many kids who never would have smoked to start the habit.
The American Vaping Association disagrees. The AVA says it's a nonprofit advocacy group that champions the use of vapor products and electronic cigarettes to help smokers quit.
AVA President Gregory Conley said many teen e-cigarette users don't use nicotine in the battery-powered devices or don't use them regularly, suggesting they're unlikely to move on to cigarettes.
"There's no reason for hysteria over data like this," said Conley.
He added: "While it would be nice to live in a world where teens engaged in no risky behavior, the bottom line is that public health has benefited from the massive declines this country has seen in teen and adult smoking since vapor products have become widely available."
The researchers behind the new study have been surveying southern California teens since the 1990s. The most recent questionnaire, conducted in 2014, involved nearly 6,000 students in grades 11 and 12.
The findings were published online July 11 in the journal Pediatrics.
It's not clear whether e-cigarettes are a fad, and Barrington-Trimis said future research is needed to understand the appeal of e-cigarettes to teens.
Also, she cautioned that the Golden State doesn't reflect the rest of the nation. "California certainly has a very unique population since we have some of the lowest rates of cigarette smoking in the country," she said. So more research is needed to know if other regions are seeing the same effects.
Federal statistics have suggested that cigarette smoking levels among teens are hitting lows, with 11 percent of teenagers surveyed in 2015 saying they smoked within the last 30 days. That same year, 16 percent said they had used e-cigarettes.
For more about electronic cigarettes, visit the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse.