By Eliza Gray
December 16, 2014

Fewer teens in the United States are smoking regular cigarettes, according to the results of a federally funded survey released Tuesday, but the popularity of electronic cigarettes suggests that some teens may be choosing e-cigs over traditional smokes.

Daily smoking among teenagers in the 8th, 10th, and 12th grades has been cut almost in half in the last five years, according to data from the annual “Monitoring the Future Survey.” Gathered from more than 40,000 kids in 377 public and private schools nationwide by researchers at the University of Michigan, the data also shows that more than one in six high school seniors, and almost as many sophomores, used electronic cigarettes in the last month.

MORE: E-cigs Are the New Cool Thing for Teenagers

“It is very possible that [electronic cigarettes] could account for some of the decrease in tobacco smoking — that kids that would otherwise start with tobacco cigarettes start by vaping,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “We are facing a completely new pattern of administering drugs.”

The data offers one possible explanation for why high schoolers are so willing to use electronic cigarettes: They think they’re safer. Just over 50% of 10th graders surveyed believed that smoking between one and five cigarettes a day posed a great risk, while only 14% thought the same thing about regular e-cig use.

While some kids may prefer the electronic alternatives, it’s also clear that many kids like to use both, just like adults who use tobacco. Of the high school seniors who said they’d used e-cigs in the last month, more than 40% said they had also smoked a conventional cigarette in the last month, too.

MORE: The Future of Smoking

While we wait for sorely needed regulation from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “there needs to be a massive educational campaign to dispel the hype and outright deception from the industry,” says Sen. Richard Blumenthal, (D-Conn.), who as Connecticut’s Attorney General fought to stop deceptive tobacco marketing to children.

“The industry is saying to teenagers that e-cigarettes are healthy and cool, that there is nothing in the vapor that could possibly harm you, and that they are a healthy alternative to cigarettes for people who want to quit,” he adds. “But in fact they may be a very unhealthy gateway to cigarette smoking for people who don’t use tobacco products now.”

Electronic cigarettes are such new products that research is inconclusive about their safety and whether they will act as a gateway to smoking for teens. Though the FDA has proposed plans to begin regulating them, the hundreds of e-cig offerings on the market are currently unchecked, leaving a wide range of safety implications depending on the product.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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