Blu Electronic cigarettes are demonstrated during a studio shoot in...

Blu Electronic cigarettes are demonstrated during a studio shoot in Melville. Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

The percentage of middle and high school students using electronic cigarettes more than doubled last year, a new survey shows, raising fears among public health leaders that the products could become a gateway to traditional tobacco.

Data released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate 10 percent of high school students say they tried the battery-powered devices in 2012, compared with 4.7 percent in 2011. About 3 percent of those students told interviewers with the National Youth Tobacco Survey they had used e-cigarettes within the past 30 days. Usage also doubled among middle school students, rising from 1.4 percent of students in 2011 to 2.7 percent last year.

"The increased use of e-cigarettes by teens is deeply troubling," CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden said in a statement. "Nicotine is a highly addictive drug. Many teens who start with e-cigarettes may be condemned to struggling with a lifelong addiction to nicotine and conventional cigarettes."

E-cigarettes have been promoted by celebrities and touted as a safe alternative to traditional tobacco-burning cigarettes. The battery-powered devices may contain addictive nicotine, depending on the brand, but all draw a new generation into the peculiarities of a habit that had been in decline, some experts say.

Nearly 2 million middle and high school students said they used e-cigarettes in 2012, according to the report published in Thursday's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

"Teens here are using them," said Dr. Stephen Dewey, director of the Laboratory for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroimaging at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset. He is an expert in addiction who regularly discusses tobacco, opioid drug and alcohol abuse at school assemblies and anti-addictions meetings on Long Island.

E-cigarette use is troubling because no one yet understands the long-term health effects, Dewey said. Instead of tobacco, e-cigarettes contain an atomizer that releases a vapor of propylene glycol. The liquid is generally considered safe, but its use in electronic cigarettes has not been fully studied.

Patricia Folan, director of the Center for Tobacco Control at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, also in Manhasset, worries that e-cigarette use by celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Jenny McCarthy and others revives the culture of smoking in a new generation.

"When kids see so much smoking, it normalizes smoking again," said Folan, adding that traditional tobacco use had been on a decline among teenagers statewide.

"In New York we have seen a generational change in the last 10 years," she said. "The smoking rate among kids in middle school has gone from about 10 percent to 3 percent. Among high school students there has been a decline from 27 percent to 11.9 percent."

Folan said while the electronic cigarettes are marketed as tools to help people stop smoking, the nicotine content of the vapor may actually draw teens into the habit.

Michele Spierto, regional sales manager in Great River for Clearette, a brand of e-cigarette, said the product is popular on the South Shore, but use of the electronic devices is growing around the world.

She noted the Food and Drug Administration bars the sale of e-cigarettes to people under the age of 18.

"Retailers are not allowed to sell them to minors," Spierto said. "So, if kids are smoking them, I don't know how they are getting them."

Paul Billings, senior vice president for advocacy and education with the American Lung Association, said the CDC's findings highlight an urgent need for the Obama administration to regulate e-cigarettes as well as unregulated tobacco products, such as cigars.

E-cigarettes are sold online and come in dozens of flavors that appeal to kids, he said. Some have alluring names, like Atomic Fireball.

"With flavors like bubble gum and cotton candy, e-cigarettes are very clearly being made and marketed in ways that appeal to children," Billings said.

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