WASHINGTON — The number of middle and high school students using electronic cigarettes tripled between 2013 and 2014, according to government figures released Thursday, a startling increase that public-health officials fear could reverse decades of efforts combating the scourge of smoking.

The popularity of e-cigarettes among teenagers now eclipses traditional cigarettes, the use of which has fallen to the lowest level in years.

Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the spike in e-cigarette use “shocking.”

“It’s a really bad thing, and it is subjecting another generation of our children to an addictive substance,” he said in an interview, adding that any type of nicotine exposure can harm the teenage brain and that some e-cigarette smokers undoubtedly will go on to use traditional cigarettes.

Not everyone sees such cause for alarm in the new numbers.

“The CDC should really be jumping for joy at the fact that smoking rates are declining. This is a huge success,” said Michael Siegel, a professor and tobacco control specialist at Boston University’s School of Public Health. “Instead, they are using this as another opportunity to demonize e-cigarettes.”

Siegel said he agrees that minors shouldn’t have access to any tobacco product. But he said the CDC numbers suggest that rather than serving as a gateway to cigarette smoking, e-cigarettes actually might be diverting teens from traditional cigarettes, which still account for nearly a half-million tobacco-related deaths in the United States each year.

Thursday’s findings came as little surprise to many educators around the country, who have increasingly wrestled with how to handle the swift rise in e-cigarette use among students.

Patricia Sheffer, superintendent of Union County Public Schools in Kentucky, grew so frustrated this year over the dozens of incidents of students being caught with e-cigarettes that last month she sent a recorded message to district parents and posted a plea on Facebook asking for help cracking down on the problem. The K-9 dogs that perform a sweep of the schools about once a month also are being trained to sniff out e-cigarettes, she said.

“It’s just growing at such a rapid pace,” said Sheffer, who worries about the various substances students might be smoking in the devices. “I thought, ‘We have to take a stand.’ ”

Anti-smoking advocates insist the rise in the popularity of e-cigarettes stems in part from aggressive marketing campaigns that Frieden called “straight out of the playbook” of ads that targeted young people in earlier generations.

E-cigarettes remain unregulated by the federal government, although numerous cities and states have passed laws restricting sales to minors and banning the devices in public places. But e-cigarettes do not face the same federal restrictions on television and radio advertising that apply to traditional cigarettes.

“These are the same images, the same themes and the same role models that the cigarette industry used 50 years ago,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “It’s the Marlboro Man reborn. It’s the Virginia Slims woman recreated, with the exact same effect. … This is not an accident.”


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