Anyone who drives down a busy street like Battleground Avenue in Greensboro has no doubt noticed the increase in the number of vaping shops around town, but Guilford County health officials are now on an all-out mission to discourage teens from the practice, which eliminates the smoke of cigarettes but still delivers nicotine to the blood stream of the user.

Sometimes marketed as a way to help people stop smoking, electronic cigarettes – or e-cigarettes – heat up liquid nicotine and vaporize it, allowing the user to inhale it and get a nicotine rush.

Both federal and state health oversight agencies have sent word to county health departments that this issue of vaping by young people needs to be made a priority.  A strongly worded advisory from the NC Department of Health and Human Services informed departments that the use of e-cigarettes has now surpassed the use of conventional cigarettes among young people.  It stated that use among teens “increased dramatically” and added, “A growing body of evidence from multiple countries shows that young people who have never smoked cigarettes — but who currently use e-cigarettes — are more likely to smoke cigarettes in the future than are young people who do not use e-cigarettes.”

According to one survey of students reported by state health officials, the use of electronic cigarettes by North Carolina high school students increased 888 percent between 2011 and 2015, from 1.7 percent to 16.8 percent of that population.   That number is still growing and younger kids are adopting the habit as well: Middle-school use was up to nearly 10 percent among the students in that study.

What’s worrisome to public health officials is that, even though these kids aren’t “smoking” in the traditional sense, e-cigarettes still get them addicted to nicotine.

Guilford County Health Director Merle Green said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is another agency fighting this war.

“The number of teens who use vaping is increasing fast and the CDC is not happy with that,” Green said.

She said it’s easier for teenagers to vape than to smoke traditional cigarettes and added that many regulations that help limit smoking don’t restrict e-cigarette use.

“Vaping is not as regulated to the same extent as smoking,” Green said.

In a recent statement, US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb called the use of vaping an “epidemic.”

“Unfortunately, I now have good reason to believe that it’s reached nothing short of an epidemic proportion of growth,” he wrote of vaping. “I use the word epidemic with great care.  E-cigs have become an almost ubiquitous ‒ and dangerous ‒ trend among teens.  The disturbing and accelerating trajectory of use we’re seeing in youth, and the resulting path to addiction, must end. It’s simply not tolerable. I’ll be clear.  The FDA won’t tolerate a whole generation of young people becoming addicted to nicotine as a tradeoff for enabling adults to have unfettered access to these same products.”