E-Cigs, Flavored Tobacco & Your Kids: What You Should Know

three smiling young women with arms around each other

In the past few decades, anti-tobacco lobbyists including the American Cancer Society’s advocacy organization, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, have made great strides in banishing the seductive advertisements that once lured people to smoking. Gone are the days of commercials touting tobacco's "bold" taste and "big" flavor. In their place are health campaigns to help people kick the habit, and a consensus that society's been successful in stigmatizing smoking.

Certainly, fewer people are lighting up conventional (combustible) cigarettes these days. Even our kids -- and that certainly is a great victory. But a new genre of noncombustible, candy-flavored smoking products is hitting the market -- and slick, provocative pinup ads are sneaking up on us once again. The target? Our children.

The decline of regular cigarette smoking among our kids has gone hand-in-hand with a sharp jump in the use of electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs, and other flavored non-cigarette tobacco products called hookahs, according to statistics from the CDC's National Youth Tobacco Survey.

"We're seeing alarming number of kids using flavored products of all kinds, such as hookahs and e-cigs," says Cliff Douglas, Vice President for Tobacco Control and Director of the Tobacco Control Center at the American Cancer Society. "The industry is producing these products using thousands of flavors, like watermelon and gummy bear, many of them clearly designed and aggressively marketed to appeal to and reach youth."

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned all flavoring in conventional cigarettes, except menthol. However, federal regulations to prohibit e-cig promotion and sale to youth are not yet in place.

"We really need to get a move on it, because it's pretty obvious that these products are being aimed at young, very young, people," says Jeffrey Drope, PhD., Vice President of Economic and Health Policy Research, Intramural Research at the American Cancer Society. "If a tobacco product, be it combustible or noncombustible, is bubble-gum flavored, my guess is it probably is not meant for you or me."

Vaping: Reglamorizing Smoking?

E-cigs can be designed to look like a cigarette, cigar, or pipe; however, some resemble a pen or even a USB device, which means students could stash them easily into a backpack. They deliver nicotine and other chemicals and flavors into the lungs using water vapor, not smoke. Manufacturers and users refer to the act as "vaping," not smoking, but Douglas says it looks exactly the same. "The products are designed to create a very visible vapor, even more visible than cigarette smoke. This has created a whole new era of unfettered marketing concerning e-cigs that is re-glamorizing the act of smoking."

And that's one of the many worries: Vaping ads – along with sweet lollipop-like flavors – are enticing our kids to use the nicotine products in the same way cigarette ads lured us or our parents decades ago. According to the National Youth Tobacco Survey, about 7 in 10 US middle and high school students were exposed to e-cigarette advertisements in 2014. They were most likely to see the ads in retail stores, followed by the Internet, TV and movies, and newspapers and magazines.

At the same time, battery-operated e-cigs are soaring in popularity among kids. In 2014, nearly 2.4 million of them vaped. Among middle and high school students who used tobacco, about 80% used at least one flavored tobacco product (e-cigs, hookahs) within the last 30 days, according to a survey of kids ages 12 to 17 published early online October 13, 2015 in Journal of the American Medical Association.

Some worry vaping could serve as a gateway to using other tobacco products. The same JAMA survey found that most students started with a flavored product before trying any other type of tobacco. Would they ever have done so if they weren't introduced to that item first? It's hard to say. But there's legitimate concern. More than half of the students who used e-cigs in the last 30 days also used multiple tobacco products.

Douglas believes: "E-cigs are playing a role in the onset and perpetuation of nicotine addiction."

"What we want parents to know is that these flavored products are absolutely harmful. There is the possibility that they could lead to nicotine addiction and to using more harmful nicotine products," Drope adds. "We don't want kids using them. Period."

Begin talking to your kids about the dangers of tobacco and nicotine starting in elementary school. Tell them about the dangers of addiction and how tobacco use can hurt their lungs and their overall health. Drope encourages parents to talk to their kids about flavors. Tell them how it can seem like candy, but it's not. Teach them how to say no and develop ways to reward them for doing so.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Alternative Tobacco Products as a Second Front in the War on Tobacco. Published early online October 13, 2015 in Journal of the American Medical Association. First author Stephen M. Amrock, MD, SM, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, Ore.

Exposure to Electronic Cigarette Advertising Among Middle School and High School Students – United States, 2014. Published January 8, 2016 in Vital Signs. First author Tushar Singh, MD, PhD, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta.

American Cancer Society news stories are copyrighted material and are not intended to be used as press releases. For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.