Surgeon General Calls E-Cigarettes Dangerous to Young People

A new report from the US Surgeon General says e-cigarette use among youth and young adults has risen to the level of a public health concern. According to the report, electronic cigarette use has grown 900% among high school students from 2011 to 2015. In 2015, about 1 in 6 high school students used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days. The report is the first comprehensive federal review of the public health impact of e-cigarettes on American young people.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said, “Nicotine-containing products in any form, including e-cigarettes, are not safe. As Surgeon General, and a new father, I’m urging all Americans to take a stand against e-cigarette use by young people.”

The report uses the term “e-cigarette” to refer to all the different products that deliver nicotine electronically. Consumers and marketers call them by many names including “e-cigarettes,” “e-cigs,” “cigalikes,” “e-hookahs,” “mods,” “vape pens,” “vapes,” and “tank systems.” Most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which can cause addiction and can harm the still-developing young brain.

While nicotine is highly addictive at any age, it is especially dangerous for youth and young adults. The harmful effects include reduced impulse control, lowered ability to learn and pay attention, increased mood disorders, and higher risk of addiction to other forms of tobacco and drugs.

Key messages:

  • E-cigarettes are now the most commonly used tobacco product among young people.
  • The aerosol from e-cigarettes often contains nicotine and other harmful ingredients, which is unsafe for the user and those who breathe it in secondhand.
  • Research has shown that youth who use e-cigarettes are more likely to go on to use other tobacco products such as regular cigarettes.
  • In 2015, more than ¼ of middle and high school students said they’d tried e-cigarettes.
  • As of 2014, more than ⅓ of young adults had tried e-cigarettes.
  • Brain development continues into the early to mid-20s. Nicotine exposure can harm the developing brain.
  • Exposure to nicotine by pregnant women, including secondhand exposure to the aerosols from e-cigarettes, can harm a developing fetus.
  • In 2014, more than 7 of 10 middle and high school students said they’d seen e-cigarette advertising.

Why e-cigarettes appeal to youth

E-cigarettes come in thousands of flavors that appeal to young people, including candy, fruit, desserts, alcohol, and snack flavors. Examples include apple pie, bubble gum, champagne, chocolate raspberry, and cotton candy.

According to the Surgeon General’s report, e-cigarette marketers use strategies that target young people. These include celebrity endorsements, sponsorships of music and sports events, themes of rebellion and sex, and widespread media advertising. The most frequent place to see advertising were retail stores, the internet, TV and movies, and magazines and newspapers. In 2012, the Surgeon General concluded that this type of advertising does cause young people to start using tobacco products.

The FDA now regulates e-cigarettes

In August, 2016, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began regulating e-cigarettes and other tobacco products popular with young people, including cigars, hookah tobacco, and pipe tobacco. Under the new changes:

  • Tobacco products may not be sold to anyone under 18, in person or online
  • Photo ID will be required to verify age
  • Free samples may not be distributed
  • Sales of tobacco products covered by the rule may not be sold in vending machines unless they are in an adult-only facility.

The Surgeon General’s Report also calls on parents, teachers, health providers, the government, and communities to protect young people from the harmful effects of e-cigarettes by treating them as seriously as regular cigarettes. According to the report:

  • Parents and educators should talk to youth about the harmful effects of all tobacco products and discourage their use.
  • Doctors and other health care providers should ask their young patients whether they use tobacco and talk to them about the harmful effects of nicotine on their brain.
  • Governments should pass clean indoor air laws that include e-cigarettes.
  • Communities and organizations should work to restrict e-cigarette and other tobacco advertising and implement anti-e-cigarette and anti-tobacco media campaigns.

Cliff Douglas, the American Cancer Society’s Vice President for Tobacco Control and Director of the Society’s Center for Tobacco Control said, “The American Cancer Society will continue to work hard to better educate the public – including kids, their parents, teachers, health providers, the media, and all decision makers about the scientific reality that these products are dangerous to youth and that youth must be protected.”

Learn more

Learn more about the risks of e-cigarettes for youth and young adults at E-cigarettes.Surgeongeneral.gov.

Get help quitting tobacco for yourself or for someone you know. Call the American Cancer Society at 800-227-2345 or read our Guide to Quitting Smoking to access our many tools and tips to help smokers beat the urge to smoke and to help nonsmokers encourage loved ones to quit.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

E-Cigarette Use Among Youth and Young Adults: A Report of the Surgeon General—Executive Summary. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2016. Atlanta, Ga.


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