Cigarette smoking is on the decline, according to a report released today by the National Center for Health Statistics, but e-cigarettes are rapidly gaining popularity in its place. Driving the rise are millennials, who appear to be vaping’s earliest adopters.

What fundamentally differentiates e-cigarettes from their traditional counterparts is that they deliver nicotine in the form of vapor, as opposed to smoke. Because they replace the combustion process with battery-powered aerosolization, they’re often thought of as less dangerous, but how their long-term health effects compare to those of regular cigarettes isn’t clear. There simply isn’t enough data to make conclusions. But that hasn’t stopped e-cigarette producers and advocates from marketing them as “safer” alternatives and smoking cessation tools.

Based on data from the 2014 National Health Interview Survey, which investigated the e-cigarette use of over 36,000 Americans, some 13 percent of American adults have tried an e-cigarette, and 3.7 percent now regularly smoke them.

Percentage of adults who had ever tried an e-cigarette in their lifetime, by sex, age, and race and Hispanic or Latino origin: United States, 2014. (AIAN is American Indian or Alaska Native.)

While usage varied by gender and race, the most interesting findings were the differences in age, which revealed the popularity of e-cigarettes — and the success of marketing campaigns — among millennials. More than 20 percent of adults aged 18-24 had tried them at least once, and use decreased with increasing age after that cut-off.

Because the report doesn’t reveal whether current cigarette smokers use e-cigarettes to quit or to replace cigarettes or are smoking both, not much can be said about their actual efficacy as a smoking cessation tool. It did point out, however, that among cigarette smokers who had attempted to quit in the past year, more than half had tried e-cigarettes at least once, and 20.3 percent currently use them.

Only time will tell whether e-cigarettes are actually any safer to use than traditional cigarettes. Whatever the outcome, it’s crucial to remember that both are, ultimately, vectors for nicotine — which is, according to the CDC, unequivocally unsafe.

Vaping in California.
Photos via NCHS Data Brief, http://vaping360.com/e-cigarettes, https://www.flickr.com/photos/127173209@N05/