20% of teens 'have accessed e-cigs'
One in five teenagers has accessed e-cigarettes, a large-scale study has found.
Researchers at Liverpool John Moores University said 16% of these had never otherwise smoked, while they also found e-cigarettes were "strongly related" to drinking amongst teenagers.
One of the study's authors, Professor Mark Bellis, warned that such "rapid penetration into teenage culture of what is essentially a new drug-use option is without precedent".
The team surveyed more than 16,000 students aged 14 to 17 in the north west of England and asked them about their alcohol and tobacco use.
They found that one in five answered yes to the question: "Have you ever bought or tried electronic cigarettes?", with more males than females saying they had, and the figure rising with age and if they lived in a deprived area.
Of the teenagers that had accessed e-cigarettes, 16% had never smoked, 23% had tried smoking but did not like it, 36% were regular smokers, 12% only smoked when drinking, and 14% were ex-smokers.
The research, which is published in the open access journal BMC Public Health, also found that teenagers who drank alcohol were significantly more likely to have accessed e-cigarettes than non-drinkers.
Among those who had never smoked, it was found that those who regularly binge drink were four times more likely to access e-cigarettes than those who never drink.
In all of those that drink, regardless of smoking status, e-cigarette access was associated with binge drinking and involvement with violence after drinking.
The researchers said their findings suggest that teenagers who use e-cigarettes are most susceptible to other forms of substance use and risk-taking behaviours.
E-cigarettes have been marketed as an alternative to smoking conventional cigarettes that is healthier than tobacco. However, research published last month showed that e-cigarettes generate toxic chemicals similar to those found in tobacco and may harm the lungs and immune system.
There is also concern that far from stopping people from lighting up a cigarette, they could act as a potential gateway to smoking.
One of the study's authors, Professor Karen Hughes, said: "We found that e-cigarette access is strongly related to alcohol use in teenagers.
"Those who drink are more likely to have accessed e-cigarettes than non-drinkers, regardless of whether they smoke normal cigarettes or not, and those who drink frequently, binge drink, drink to get drunk, drink strong alcohol products and show signs of unsupervised alcohol consumption are most likely to have accessed e-cigarettes.
"This suggests that e-cigarettes have rapidly become part of at-risk teenagers' substance-using repertoires."
Prof Bellis said: "Our research suggests that we should be very concerned about teenagers accessing e-cigarettes.
"While debate on e-cigarettes has focused largely on whether or not they act as a gateway to tobacco cigarette use, e-cigarettes themselves contain a highly addictive drug that may have more serious and longer lasting impacts on children because their brains are still developing.
"Despite being practically unheard of just a decade ago, e-cigarettes are now widely available, heavily promoted, yet weakly regulated and our study found that one in five 14 to 17-year-old school children in the North West has accessed them.
"Such rapid penetration into teenage culture of what is essentially a new drug-use option is without precedent. Of particular concern is our finding that teenage ex-smokers who accessed e-cigarettes were outnumbered by those who had never smoked but simply decided to experiment with what might be packaged to look like a safe, attractive product but actually contains a highly addictive drug."