Electronic cigarettes are a good alternative for those unable to cut out nicotine, but fears are mounting that they could also represent a gateway vice for kids who might never have smoked in the first place.
With bright colors, tasty flavors, and wide availability online, e-cigs seem perfectly poised to attract young non-smokers. As with the spike in coffee consumption in American youth, this suggests that “healthier” products—ones that are relatively safe in moderation, but not actually good for you—are being confused as healthy and safe.
Nearly 7% of middle and high school students in the United States smoked an electronic cigarette in 2012, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among middle schoolers, 20% of e-cigs users said they hadn’t previously smoked a traditional cigarette. (The figure was 9.3% for high schoolers.)
“Our target customer base is those people who felt doomed to a life of smoking,” Geoff Braithwaite, owner of e-cigarette manufacturer Tasty Vapor, told NPR. But, he admits, “There’s going to be a novelty around it. It’s a brand new thing, it’s an electronic device. That kind of stuff will always appeal to kids; it would have appealed to me.”
While electronic cigarettes are a better choice than their predecessors in terms of health—they don’t contain tobacco, or many of the other carcinogenic components of a traditional cigarette—they’re not harmless. Regulation is in the works, and it’s doubtful that e-cigs will continue to be so easy to buy for the underaged. But if e-cigarette makers don’t take care with their advertisements, they could be accused of the same child-targeted marketing that big-tobacco played with before regulators fought back.