SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU and Wires) - Fewer teens are smoking cigarettes, according to a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however that decline has been countered by a sharp increase in the number of high school and middle school students who are using electronic cigarettes.
The number of high school students who tried e-cigarettes tripled in one year to more than 13 percent. Water pipes or hookahs were used by 9.4 percent.
Smoking of traditional cigarettes plummeted to 9.2 percent from more than 13 percent. That means smoking in high school is now less common than e-cigarette or hookah use.
CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden this week described the findings as "alarming." He said the decline in use of most tobacco products was more than offset by the growth in nicotine-laden e-cigarettes and hookahs.
In the Bay Area, KTVU spoke with students outside Berkeley High School, who said the report doesn't surprise them.
"On Shattuck all the time I'm at lunch, there's adults using them, there's kids using them. They're really popular I think because I think people think there's not a lot of negative side effects," said Kaili Meier, a Berkeley High School sophomore.
"They like the flavor of it and they feel like it's easier to do it then, rolling a blunt up and smoking it or smoking a cigarette," said Omari Embrey, another sophomore at Berkeley High School.
"They try to make circles or hearts or designs when they blow it out from their mouths," said classmate Elijah Jordan-Brooks.
E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that produce an odorless vapor that typically contains nicotine and flavorings.
At the Gold and Gifted smoke shop in Berkeley, one employee Sydale Abay displayed a few of the most popular flavors.
"Churro with strawberry ice cream, pineapple strawberry peach, strawberry rice crispy treats and pop rocks," said Abay, pointing to tiny vials of what's called e-juice or e-liquid. He says e-cigarettes don't necessarily need to contain nicotine. Some liquids have nicotine, others have no nicotine at all.
Abay said e-cigarettes are helping him and many of his customers quit smoking.
"They're not going to quit on the spot, you know, it'll take time, but it's a process, it helps them get through it," Abay said.
UC Berkeley Public Health professor Katharine Hammond says e-cigarettes have become a big issue. She says the concern is that the devices are being marketed directly to minors by large tobacco companies that are quickly acquiring e-cigarette makers.
"These things need to be regulated, but people are not sure how to regulate them. The FDA itself is struggling with that issue," Hammond told KTVU.
Hammond serves on the World Health Organization's study group for tobacco and says there is concern is that e-cigarettes are often touted as a gateway out of smoking, but could become a gateway in, for youth who otherwise wouldn't find tobacco appealing. Hammond says the problem is a shortage of research and an abundance of products, more than 450 at last count in the U.S., according to the WHO.
"It is clear that there are some toxic materials being used in e-cigarettes and toxic emissions. The full degree of that isn't known because the products are changing constantly, they're very different," said Hammond.
Recently public service announcements have started running on television to counter advertisements for e-cigarettes.
California is one of the few states that prohibits e-cigarette sales to minors.
State Senator Mark Leno wants the law to go a step further and has introduced Senate Bill 140 that would prohibit e-cigarette advertisements on television and restrict where e-cigarettes are used.
"If we could regulate them as tobacco products, than they could not be used where tobacco products are prohibited legally...so someone wouldn't be vaping at the table next to you," said State Sen. Mark Leno of San Francisco.
Leno says he aims to have his bill before the State Senate in May and hopes it will pass the State Assembly and be on the Governor's desk by the end of August.
The CDC report is based on a national survey of about 22,000 students at middle schools and high schools, both public and private. Students were asked whether they had smoked or used a tobacco product in the previous 30 days; those who said yes were deemed current smokers. Besides cigarettes, the report found continuing declines in the use of cigars, chewing tobacco and snuff among high school students.
Some public health experts say the CDC is taking an unusually hard stand against e-cigarettes, at a time when scientists still trying to determine how harmful they are. They started selling in the U.S. in 2006 and are often described as a less dangerous alternative to cigarettes.
"The CDC has been very one-sided on the e-cigarette issue," said Kenneth Warner, a University of Michigan public health professor who is a leading authority on smoking and health.
Scientists say nicotine is harmful for the developing brain. Frieden said e-cigarettes are a new way of introducing kids to nicotine - and potentially hooking them on tobacco products in the future.
"The idea that kids are better off using e-cigarettes is just the wrong way of thinking about it," he said.
A year ago, the Food and Drug Administration proposed regulating e-cigarettes, including banning sales to minors. A final rule is expected by June, an FDA spokesman said Thursday.