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E-cigarette Makers Are Intentionally Targeting Our Kids, CDC Says

The Short of It

E-cigarette makers are spending millions of dollars to advertise their product to teenagers, and it's working, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Lowdown

CDC researchers report that 69 percent of middle and high school students have seen e-cig ads. That's more than 18 million kids! And while more than half have seen them advertised in stores, 40 percent have seen the ads online, and 36 percent viewed them on TV or in movies.

Talk about selling candy to a baby!

"The same advertising tactics the tobacco industry used years ago to get kids addicted to nicotine are now being used to entice a new generation of young people to use e-cigarettes," CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden told NBC News. "Kids should not be using e-cigarettes, and yet two-thirds of kids in this country are seeing e-cigarette ads."

That's pretty disheartening, especially given the fact that, according to the CDC, e-cigarette use among high school students rose from 1.5 percent to 13.4 percent and from 0.6 percent to 3.9 percent among middle school students between 2011 and 2014. And at the same time, spending on e-cigarette ads rose from $6.4 million to $115 million.

According to Frieden, the marketing tactics, which include online "viral" marketing that can't even be measured, are extremely effective.

"E-cigarette ads use many of the same themes—independence, rebellion, and sex—used to sell cigarettes and other conventional tobacco products," the CDC report says.

Even worse, advocates say this purposeful advertising threatens to derail decades of progress in helping prevent kids from taking up smoking.

"The irresponsible and indiscriminate marketing by the e-cigarette industry, coupled with a complete lack of government oversight is putting the health of our nation's kids at risk," Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told NBC News. "It shouldn't be a surprise that youth use of e-cigarettes has skyrocketed when kids are being inundated with marketing for these products."

The Upshot

Indeed, e-cig manufacturers seem to be blatantly targeting the teen market by using bright colors, candy flavors and youthful vapor names like "cherry crush" and "orange creamsicle."

"Mmmm, juicy Watermelon, tangy Lemon Zest, and sweet Cotton Candy are blended into tropical perfection with this unbeatable combination! When you want to set off your taste buds with the taste of tropical candy, this is the way to do it!"

That's an actual quote from an e-cigarette website—where a "starter kit" that features e-cigs in kid-friendly shades like neon orange, dark purple, and hot pink is also being promoted.

Part of the problem is the widespread belief that e-cigarettes are safe. But several studies have suggested this may not be the case. Although e-cigarettes don't contain tobacco or create smoke, they do usually contain addictive nicotine, according to the CDC, and might also harm brain development and "lead to sustained tobacco product use among youths."

Late last year a team at the Harvard School of Public Health found many e-cigarette flavors deliver harmful chemicals. Other teams found formaldehyde, which is known to cause cancer.

The FDA has issued a proposed rule that would extend the agency's tobacco authority to cover e-cigarettes. It's currently under review at The White House.

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