In total, 1.8 million middle and high school students said they had tried e-cigarettes in 2012.
"This is really taking off among kids," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the C.D.C.
E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that deliver nicotine that is vaporized to form an aerosol mist. Producers promote them as a healthy alternative to smoking, but researchers say their health effects are not yet clear, though most acknowledge that they are less harmful than traditional cigarettes. The Food and Drug Administration does not yet regulate them, though analysts expect that the agency will start soon.
Thomas Briant, executive director of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets, which represents 28,000 stores, said the study "raises too many unanswered questions," for the data to be used for policy making. It was unclear, for example, whether students who tried e-cigarettes were using them regularly or only once. He pointed out that selling them to minors is now illegal in many states.
One of the biggest concerns among health officials is the potential for e-cigarettes to become a path to smoking among young people who otherwise would not have experimented. The survey found that most students who had tried e-cigarettes had also smoked cigarettes.
But one in five middle school students who said they had tried e-cigarettes reported never having smoked a conventional cigarette, raising fears that e-cigarettes, at least for some, could become a gateway. Among high school students, 7 percent who had tried an e-cigarette said they had never smoked a traditional cigarette.
Dr. Frieden said that the adolescent brain is more susceptible to nicotine, and that the trend of rising use could hook young people who might then move into more harmful products like conventional cigarettes.
Image: E-cigarette, via Shutterstock