WASHINGTON -- The share of middle and high school students who use e-cigarettes doubled in 2012 from the previous year, federal data show. The rise is prompting concerns among health officials that the new devices could be creating as many health problems as they are solving.
One in 10 high school students said they had tried an e-cigarette last year, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention national survey found, up from 1 in 20 in 2011. About 3 percent said they had used one in the prior 30 days. In total, 1.8 million middle and high school students said they had tried e-cigarettes in 2012.
"This is really taking off among kids," said CDC director Thomas Frieden.
E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that deliver nicotine that is vaporized to form an aerosol mist. Producers promote them as a healthy alternative to smoking, but researchers say their health effects are not yet clear, although most acknowledge that they are less harmful than traditional cigarettes.
The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate them, although analysts expect that the agency will start soon.
One of the biggest concerns among health officials is the potential for e-cigarettes to become a path to smoking among young people who otherwise would not have experimented. The survey found that most students who had tried e-cigarettes had also smoked cigarettes.
But 1 in 5 middle school students who said they had tried e-cigarettes reported never having smoked a conventional cigarette, raising fears that e-cigarettes could become a gateway. Among high school students, 7 percent who had tried an e-cigarette said they had never smoked a traditional cigarette.
Dr. Frieden said the adolescent brain is more susceptible to nicotine, and the trend could hook young people who might then try more harmful products such as conventional cigarettes.
Murray S. Kessler, chairman, president and chief executive of Lorillard Inc., a North Carolina-based tobacco firm that markets Blu eCigs, said the rise in youth usage was "unacceptable." He said the company was "looking forward to a regulatory framework that restricts youth access," but does not "stifle what may be the most significant harm-reduction opportunity that has ever been made available to smokers."
The sharp rise among students mirrored that among adult users, and researchers said it appeared to be driven, at least in part, by aggressive national marketing campaigns, some featuring famous actors. (Producers say the ads are not aimed at adolescents.)
E-cigarettes also come in flavors, which were banned in traditional cigarettes in 2009 and which health officials say appeal to young people.
"Kids love gadgets, and the marketing for these things is in your face," said University at Buffalo health behavior professor Gary A. Giovino. He added that rising use of e-cigarettes risked reversing societal trends in which smoking had fallen out of fashion.
About 6 percent of all adults -- not just smokers -- reported having tried e-cigarettes in 2011, according to a CDC survey, about double the number in 2010. Data for adults in 2012 are not yet available, a CDC spokesman said.
Mitchell Zeller, director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products, said in a statement that the data were "a cause for great concern, as we don't yet understand the long-term effects of these novel tobacco products." He said the agency intended to expand its authority to all tobacco products. Congress granted it authority over cigarettes in 2009.