It’s a good news, bad news kind of thing.
The number of middle- and high-school youth who use electronic cigarettes tripled from 2013 to 2014 while use of traditional tobacco cigarettes dropped, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control.
The good news is that fewer of the 22,000 students sampled used more harmful traditional cigarettes. The bad news is that the surprising popularity of e-cigs among teenagers rolls back decades of anti-smoking campaigns and still exposes them to addictive and potentially harmful nicotine.
And it's still unclear how all of this affects Altria and Philip Morris USA, a big local employer that sells 50 percent of the nation’s traditional cigarette. Philip Morris is late in the e-cig game, having just introduced its MarkTen e-cigarette last year.
According to Altria’s annual report released in February: “In the fourth quarter, Nu Mark LLC (Nu Mark) began shipping its latest MarkTen e-vapor product, with 2.5% nicotine-by-weight, in classic and menthol varieties and completed its national expansion of MarkTen e-vapor products, achieving distribution in over 130,000 retail stores. As of December 31, 2014, MarkTen was ranked among the top e-vapor brands nationally based on retail market share.”
MarkTen has gotten mixed reviews. A plus is the low price of its starter kit, but it gets mixed scores on other matters such as flavor. The most popular brands are more expensive ones by made by smaller firms that dominate the e-cig market.
CDC director Tom Frieden says the big jump in e-cig use by teenagers is "a really bad thing" and is subjecting children to an addictive substance. In high amounts, nicotine can be deadly to infants and may cause brain damage in teenagers.
There have also been studies showing that sloppily made e-cigs can release formaldehyde if the burn settings are set too high.
Others claim that the rise in e-cig use among teenagers is a good thing because it could make them less likely to use traditional cigarettes that release carcinogenic tar and other highly dangerous compounds. About 488,000 Americans die each year from smoking. Some experts say that e-cigs could lead to eventual traditional smoke use.
The bottom line is that the jury’s still out and it’s not clear how this affects Philip Morris, which employs about 4,000 people in the Richmond area.
Time will tell if Philip Morris was too late to make much progress in the e-cig market, if its ability to make cheaper e-cigs with better quality control will be a boon, or if there’s a cynical strategy to re-fire its sagging traditional smoke market by promoting e-cigs and then encouraging users to quit.
In any event, teenagers, especially middle-schoolers, shouldn’t be getting addicted to nicotine -- no way around it.