CDC blames e-cigarettes for spike in youth tobacco use

E-cigarettes have erased the progress in the fight against youth tobacco use, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday. 

Nearly 5 million middle and high school students were current users of some type of tobacco product in 2018, up from 3.6 million in 2017, according to a new CDC report. 

The increase in the number of minors using tobacco is mostly driven by e-cigarettes, the report says.  

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While there was no change found in the use of other tobacco products, including cigarettes, the number of kids using e-cigarettes has increased dramatically. 

There were 1.5 million more youth e-cigarette users in 2018 than in 2017, the CDC found. 

High school students smoking e-cigarettes are also doing so more often.

The number of high school students using e-cigarettes more than 20 days in the past 30 days has increased 20 percent from 2017 to 28 percent in 2018. 

In all, 27 percent of high school students and 7 percent of middle school students told researchers in 2018 they were currently using tobacco products. 

E-cigarettes were the most commonly used tobacco products among high schoolers for the fifth year in a row. 

The new data comes as the Food and Drug Administration threatens to crack down on the tobacco industry for selling e-cigarettes to minors. 

"I fear this trend will continue in 2019, forcing us to make some tough decisions about the regulatory status of e-cigarettes,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb. 

"We’ll continue to take a series of escalating regulatory actions to try to address the root causes of this spike in youth e-cigarette use, in particular by ensuring these products are sold in ways that make them less accessible and appealing to youth.”

Gottlieb has accused e-cigarette manufacturers of purposely marketing their products toward kids by selling candy-like flavors. 

The FDA has proposed rules that would limit the sales of flavored e-cigarettes to age-restricted, in-person locations, and require a heightened age verification process for online retailers selling e-cigarettes. 

E-cigarette manufacturer Juul, in particular, has been on the receiving end of the FDA's public shaming campaign. 

Gottlieb's criticism of Juul has only heightened after 35 percent of its stake was acquired in December by tobacco giant Altria. 

Gottlieb demanded a meeting with both companies last week, questioning their commitment to keeping their products out of the hands of kids. 

"I am aware of deeply concerning data showing that youth use of JUUL products represents a significant proportion of the overall use of e-cigarette products by children," Gottlieb said in a letter last week to CEO Kevin Burns. 

"After Altria Group, Inc.' s acquisition of a 35 percent ownership interest in JUUL, many of JUUL's public statements seem inconsistent with its previous representations to the FDA."

"When we meet, JUUL should be prepared to explain how this acquisition by Altria affects the commitments you made to the FDA about addressing the crisis of youth use of JUUL products."

A Juul spokesman told CNBC the company is "committed as ever to preventing underage use of e-cigarettes." 

Responding to the CDC data Monday, Altria reiterated its support for raising the age to purchase tobacco products to 21. 

"Kids shouldn't use any tobacco products and we share the FDA's concerns with youth use of e-vapor," said Jennifer Hunter, Altria's client services senior vice president. 

"We remain committed to being part of the solution."