E-cigarette use among youth dropped for the first time in six years, driving a significant decrease in overall tobacco consumption among middle and high school students, according to a survey published Thursday.
The number of students in grades 6-12 using e-cigarettes fell from 3 million in 2015 to 2.2 million in 2016, according to the report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That drop also led to a decrease in overall tobacco usage for the age group, from 4.7 million in 2015 to 3.9 million in 2016.
The change is significant because e-cigarette use among students rose steadily from 2011-2015, according to CDC and FDA data.
Robin Koval, president and CEO of Truth Initiative, said she thinks the dip is largely due to youth-targeted education campaigns by her anti-smoking advocacy group and others in recent years, including the FDA’s “The Real Cost” campaign.
“Seeing this change in the data trend on e-cigarettes is a big deal,” she said.
Despite the decline, e-cigarettes remained the most commonly consumed tobacco product among youth for the third year in a row, used by 11.3% of high schoolers and 4.3% of middle schoolers.
“Tobacco use in any form, including e-cigarettes, is unsafe for youth,” said Corinne Graffunder, the director of the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health.
E-cigarettes, which deliver nicotine through an inhaled aerosol, are a double-edged sword, public health experts say.
“For smokers trying to quit, it can be a great public health benefit,” said Nancy Rigotti, director of the Tobacco Research and Treatment Center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. "We think there might be a product that will help smokers quit and save their lives.”
E-cigarettes are safer than traditional cigarettes, she said, but on the other hand, they may lead non-smokers, particularly young people, to eventually become traditional cigarette smokers.
“The trade-off is how much (e-cigarettes) will help current smokers to quit and how much it will induce young people to start smoking,” Rigotti said. Nicotine is an addictive substance, and e-cigarettes, which are often sold on the Internet and come in attractive flavors, can be especially appealing to young people, she said.
CDC and FDA officials stressed the importance of remaining vigilant and continuing to develop preventive and public health measures.
“While these latest numbers are encouraging, it is critical that we work to ensure this downward trend continues over the long term across all tobacco products,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.
Follow Sarah Toy on Twitter: @sarahtoy17