BACKGROUND:

Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) are now the most commonly used tobacco product among US youth. The extent to which perceptions of e-cigarettes’ harm and addictiveness differ from those of other products remains unknown, as does whether these perceptions have changed over time.

METHODS:

Data from the 2012 and 2014 National Youth Tobacco Survey, a repeated cross-sectional survey of grade 6 to 12 students, were used. Cross-tabulations and logistic regression models were used to describe correlates of perceptions of harm and addictiveness of e-cigarettes, cigars, and smokeless tobacco compared with cigarettes. Trends in perceptions of e-cigarettes’ harm among different demographic groups were also assessed.

RESULTS:

In 2014, 73.0% believed that e-cigarettes were less harmful than cigarettes, compared with 20.2% for smokeless tobacco and 25.8% for cigars. By comparison, 47.1% believed that e-cigarettes were less addictive than cigarettes, compared with only 14.0% for smokeless tobacco and 31.5% for cigars. Use of each product was associated with a perception of decreased harm and addictiveness in adjusted analyses, as was being male, being a non-Hispanic white, and residing with a household member who used that product. Between 2012 and 2014, increasing numbers of US youth thought they were able to assess the relative harm of e-cigarettes and increasingly believed that e-cigarettes are less harmful than cigarettes.

CONCLUSIONS:

Most US youth view e-cigarettes as less harmful and addictive than cigarettes. Far fewer think similarly about cigars and smokeless tobacco. Increases in e-cigarettes’ perceived safety mirrors rapid increases observed in their use. Perceived safety correlates with use of each tobacco product.

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