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Review ARTICLE

Front. Public Health, 26 March 2018 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2018.00086

E-Cigarette Use Among Adolescents: An Overview of the Literature and Future Perspectives

imageEvanthia P. Perikleous1, imagePaschalis Steiropoulos1,2, imageEmmanouil Paraskakis1,3, imageTheodoros C. Constantinidis1,4 and imageEvangelia Nena1,4*
  • 1Medical School, Democritus University of Thrace, Alexandroupolis, Greece
  • 2Department of Pneumonology, Medical School, Democritus University of Thrace, Alexandroupolis, Greece
  • 3Department of Pediatrics, Medical School, Democritus University of Thrace, Alexandroupolis, Greece
  • 4Laboratory of Hygiene and Environmental Protection, Medical School, Democritus University of Thrace, Alexandroupolis, Greece

Background: Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) are rapidly emerging into a new trend among adolescents, signaling a new époque, that of vapers. E-cigarettes are battery-powered nicotine delivery devices that heat a typically flavoring liquid solution into an aerosol mist that users inhale, allowing them to imitate the act of conventional smoking. There are concerns about the impact of e-cigarettes at both individual and public health level.

Aim: To discuss the characteristics of the most vulnerable, to become e-cigarette users, group of adolescents and to further highlight their behaviors and characteristics.

Methods: An electronic search in PubMed, EMBASE, and Google Scholar databases was conducted, using combinations of the following keywords: adolescents, teenagers, e-cigarettes, vaping. The search included all types of articles written in English until August 2017. A total of 100 articles were found, and 25 were finally included in the present review.

Results: Older age, male gender, conventional smokers, peer influence, daily smoking, and heavier smoking are the most common characteristics of adolescent e-cigarette users.

Conclusion: E-cigarette use is common, especially between certain subgroups in the adolescent population. Since e-cigarette use is increasing and considering that the long term health effects are still under investigation, targeted interventions towards more susceptible individuals may be an effective prevention strategy.

Introduction

Rationale-Objectives

Tobacco purchase and usage have shifted to alternative products since the introduction of electronic nicotine delivery systems into the market in the mid-2000s, raising concerns due to increased public interest (1, 2). Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) are novel battery-operated hand-held devices designed to deliver smokeless doses of nicotine, through a vaporization process. E-cigarettes have been designed to simulate the sensory experience of smoking, although without combustion.

Nowadays, a wide variety of e-cigarette brands is easily accessible in retail and online shops (3). E-cigarette advertising expenditures increased sharply (4), while safety and long-term health effects are still vague based on the present scientific evidence. As a result of the large-scale marketing, e-cigarettes gained widespread pervasiveness among all age groups, including vulnerable adolescents and youths populations (58). Indeed, recent reports from United States showed that 4.3% of middle school students and 11.3% of high-school students reported having used e-cigarettes in 2016 (9). In addition, reports from UK, comprising data from 60,000 young individuals, aged 11–16 years, showed regular e-cigarette use between 1 and 3% and ever-use between 7 and 18% (10). Furthermore, data from 24,658 individuals in the 2012 National Youth Tobacco Survey reported that almost one-third of adolescents in the United States consider e-cigarettes as less harmful than conventional cigarettes (11).

E-cigarette vapor contains many of the known harmful toxins of traditional cigarettes, such as formaldehyde, cadmium, and lead, even though usually at a reduced percentage (12). However, short- and long-term health implications on e-cigarette users remain foggy. E-cigarette marketing is of particular concern, because is creating an illusion that e-cigarettes are safer and healthier than conventional tobacco cigarettes, whereas their safety and their potential role in smoking cessation is still a matter of ongoing debate.

Diverse characteristics influence the vulnerability of adolescents toward e-cigarette usage. These can be intrapersonal, like adolescents’ age, interpersonal, like conflict with family and peers, and contextual comprising community structures and district laws (13). Several marketing and design product features seem to be more attractive for young people. For example, flavorings or lack of age regulation restricting laws have been implicated as reasons for youth susceptibility to e-cigarettes (14). An analysis of e-cigarette retail websites, marketing, and promotional campaigns demonstrated frequent appeals to adolescents such as use by celebrities, feature cartoons, and enhanced social activity as well as sexual appeal (15).

It is a common assumption that adolescents have higher rates of impulsivity, and therefore proclivity of adopting dangerous behaviors, rather than other age groups (16). According to the theoretical model of planned behavior, individuals’ perceptions influence their choice to participate in a specific behavior (17). Consistent with the aforementioned theory, many youths perceive e-cigarettes as safer, easier to conceal, and healthier alternatives compared with combustible cigarettes (18, 19). Youths who have lower harm perceptions may be particularly susceptible to e-cigarette and polytobacco use (11, 2024), conversely those who perceive e-cigarettes as more harmful would be less possible to use them (11).

Marketing, especially through social media, has a salient role in vaping promotion among adolescents; whereas retail stores are a prominent source of e-cigarette display (25). Four Scottish communities participated in a recent observational study in which a potential concern has emerged due to the placement of e-cigarettes, in 36% of stores, near to products popular to children (26). E-cigarettes are often marketed and displayed on countertops near till points and next to products of particular interest to children and adolescents; this may lead to the embracing of e-cigarettes as a broadly used and accepted product (26). However, several US jurisdictions have passed laws that increased the minimum age of sale for all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to 21 years (27).

Future research is imperative to illustrate the motivations behind teenagers’ experimentation with e-cigarettes, while continued monitoring is warranted to clarify the temporal relationship between e-cigarette and tobacco products (28), with firmer tobacco control and social networking policies to prevent smoking initiation and lifetime continuation.

Methods

Search Strategy

We performed an electronic search in the following databases: PubMed, EMBASE, and Google Scholar, using combinations of the following keywords: adolescents, teenagers, e-cigarettes, vaping. The search included all types of articles written in English until August 2017. A total of 100 articles were found, and 25 were finally included in the present review. Exclusion criteria were the following: included participants older than 18 years (n = 30 articles), not original research (n = 2 articles), not relevant data, for example, e-cigarette marketing issues, consumers’ preference in certain products, etc. (n = 31 articles), use of conventional cigarettes (n = 8 articles), use of alternative tobacco products (n = 4). The followed strategy and search results are displayed in Figure 1.

FIGURE 1
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Figure 1. Flow chart of the search strategy.

Results

The large body of evidence points to an increased interest in exploring the characteristics among adolescent e-cigarette users. Table 1 summarizes the current literature about the characteristics of adolescent users regarding e-cigarettes. E-cigarette has a large dispersion and penetration among teenagers, and is becoming the most commonly used tobacco product (9). Many researchers declared that the most frequent reason behind adolescents’ e-cigarette experimentation was curiosity and the irresistible urge to try something new (2931). On the contrary, major causes of e-cigarette smoking cessation were the following: losing interest, perceiving them as uncool, and enunciating anxiety about health (14).

TABLE 1
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Table 1. Summary of studies assessing characteristics of adolescent electronic cigarettes users.

Characteristics of vulnerable adolescent populations:

Male gender: Gender was found to be a predictor of current e-cigarette use with males being significantly more likely to declare having already tried it than females (6, 20, 21, 24, 2941).

School performance: Vocational school career (29, 30), lower school performance (29, 34, 42), being out of school (30), and studying at disadvantaged school (30) have been demonstrated that are correlated with both e-cigarette ever- and daily use. These factors are also predisposing to conventional smoking (43). On the other hand, in a recent study, researchers have found that non-users and e-cigarette-only users had higher mean grades than the cigarette-only group, and the non-user group had higher mean grades than the dual user group (20).

Age-grade: In a previous study, both increased use of e-cigarette, and e-cigarette perceived harmfulness and awareness have been delineated with advancing school grade (23). This, steady with age, increase has been demonstrated in several studies (20, 22, 29, 32, 38, 40, 4345), highlighting the urgent need of novel research to shed further light into the age-related trajectories of e-cigarette use.

Economic status: Both being in employment and being affluent (29, 32, 46) provide higher odds of using e-cigarettes.

Tobacco use and related factors: Tobacco-related determinants are stronger characteristics of e-cigarettes usage than sociodemographic factors (34). Daily smoking (6, 24, 29, 30, 3234, 39, 43, 44, 46), parental or household member smoking (29, 3335, 43), peers smoking (20, 29, 30, 32, 36, 43, 44), ever-use of all tobacco products like snus, and waterpipes (20, 29, 34, 39, 44) were associated with e-cigarette use.

Discussion

As most studies report, male gender, older age, higher amount of pocket money, and tobacco smoking-related characteristics, such as regular and heavier smoking, and having peers who smoke, are the most common trends in characteristics of adolescent e-cigarette users.

The increased prevalence of vaping among males can be due to sociocultural characteristics or marketing messages and current trends. In many cases, males are most likely to be early adopters of technology, having easier access to e-cigarettes and they can also get exposed to e-cigarettes because they represent a newcomer product (29, 33). Additionally, it was demonstrated that boys’ higher risk of e-cigarette use may exist, partially, due to their lower harm perception (48). Generally, males tend to appraise lower risk comparative with females and stay away of risky behaviors only when they perceive severe risk (49).

One might say that the observed frequent use of e-cigarettes in older age is expected since older students are more informed about e-cigarettes, and e-cigarettes are easier to obtain from retail shops and through the internet (19, 44), given the lack of regulation of age restrictions laws, a situation which is recently being reviewed in numerous countries (27, 50).

Another characteristic, the observed relationship between higher amount of pocket money and e-cigarette usage may be due to the fact that adolescents can afford to buy e-cigarettes (51). This characteristic may suggest that having an adequate allowance at the adolescent’s disposal may influence smoking practice, suggesting that guardians, who provide youths with pocket money, should pay attention in how that cash is spend.

Several studies also support the association between vaping and tobacco use related characteristics. Indeed, it has been proposed that e-cigarettes can be used as a method for smoking cessation. However, previous research has shown that vaping among adolescents was faced more for experimentation rather than smoking cessation (33), and that heavier e-cigarettes smokers are least likely to consider smoking cessation (29). A great percentage of young vapers had never tried conventional cigarettes (29, 30, 33, 35, 44), while in other studies e-cigarette ever-use was non-significantly related neither with quit intention nor attempts (24, 39). On the contrary, among adults, e-cigarettes are seen as a potential cessation aid (11, 52), while among adolescents who have never before smoked, e-cigarette use is associated with willingness to smoke, and vaping may act as a “one-way bridge” to smoking (47, 53). Moreover, an association was recently reported between e-cigarette use and initiation or escalation of cigarette smoking (28). Only in two Korean studies, e-cigarette usage was associated with the desire to quit smoking (32, 45).

A number of limitations of studies included should be considered in order to allow interpretation of the described findings. Firstly, the cross-sectional design in many studies preclude us from exporting causal inferences about the results; since they can only indicate associations among the studied characteristics but not causality (6, 20, 24, 2933, 35, 36, 38, 39, 4147). Secondly, the self-reported assessment could introduce reporting bias (6, 2024, 2946, 52). Thirdly, findings may not be generalizable to populations outside of the samples geographical areas or other countries or regions (20, 21, 23, 29, 30, 3238, 4147).

It is urgent, moreover, to include e-cigarettes in tobacco prevention programs; targeting in vulnerable groups through early intervention efforts. Given their overwhelming acceptance, prevention campaigns via social media, appear to be an effective mechanism for influencing trends when targeting youth populations. Prospective surveys should be directed toward addressing the potential long-term effects on health and the probable nicotine addiction of consumers. The findings underscore the need of constructing persuasive e-cigarette prevention messages promoting public health welfare.

Author Contributions

EPP contributed in designing and drafting the manuscript, PS contributed in the initial conception and critical revision, EP contributed in the design and interpretation, TC contributed in the interpretation and critical revision, EN contributed in the conception, interpretation, and critical revision. All authors provide their approval for the final version to be published.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

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Keywords: adolescents, teenagers, e-cigarettes, vaping, electronic cigarette

Citation: Perikleous EP, Steiropoulos P, Paraskakis E, Constantinidis TC and Nena E (2018) E-Cigarette Use Among Adolescents: An Overview of the Literature and Future Perspectives. Front. Public Health 6:86. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2018.00086

Received: 03 October 2017; Accepted: 05 March 2018;
Published: 26 March 2018

Edited by:

Jean Marc Guile, University of Picardie Jules Verne, France

Reviewed by:

Mandakini Sadhir, University of Kentucky, United States
Angela Sy, University of Hawaii at Manoa, United States

Copyright: © 2018 Perikleous, Steiropoulos, Paraskakis, Constantinidis and Nena. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Evangelia Nena, enena@med.duth.gr