Teenagers who vape nicotine are trying e-cigarettes earlier in life than they were a few years, alarming new research finds.
The number of e-cigarette smokers who reported starting the habit for the first time when they were 14 years old or younger has tripled since 2014, which is the first year that e-cigarettes were included on a national survey about tobacco use among students.
"I think it is related to the big increases we are seeing overall in the numbers of kids who are vaping," said Rebecca Evans-Polce, lead author of the new study, which was published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health.
"Many kids, even younger kids, do not see vaping as risky," added Evans-Polce, who is also an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan School of Nursing.
While the study did not specifically examine why students were taking up vaping earlier in life, there's some evidence to support the theory that kids don't understand the risks of vaping. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly two-thirds of Juul users between the ages of 15 and 24 did not know that Juul e-cigarettes always contain nicotine.
The new study utilized data from the National Youth Tobacco Survey, which is conducted annually in middle and high schools around the country, and includes responses from more than 26,600 students between 2014 and 2018.
Among students who reported lifetime use of e-cigarettes in 2014, 63% said they started using e-cigarettes when they were 16 or 17 years old. By 2018, the number of e-cigarette users who said they started at 16 or 17 had fallen to 43%.
During that same time period, however, younger teenagers reported trying e-cigarettes earlier in life. In 2014, just 9% of teenagers who used e-cigarettes reported starting at age 14 or younger. By 2018, that number had risen to 29%.
There was no significant change in the age that lifetime smokers said they started using traditional cigarettes between 2014 and 2018, with roughly half of student smokers saying they first tried cigarettes when they were 14 years old or younger.
Early uptake of traditional cigarettes is associated with a host of health problems, including the potential for developing dependence on cigarettes and an increased risk of becoming addicted to other substances, like drugs and alcohol. Starting young also lengthens the duration a smoker will spend using cigarettes, which ups their chances of developing lung cancer down the road, according to the National Institutes of Health.
As it stands, most smokers start early, with 90% of cigarette smokers starting before age 18 and 98% of smokers starting before age 26, the CDC reports.
Amid national concerns about youth vaping, Congress is poised to change the age to purchase e-cigarettes, as well as to purchase traditional tobacco products, to 21.