By Rob Goodier

(Reuters Health) – Young adults may be more likely than older folks to go online to find health information, and less likely to view tobacco products as “very harmful,” according to survey results compiled to inform U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulatory policy.

“According to this study, young adults are particularly susceptible to E. Cig(s) and, among non-smoking young adults, vulnerable to cigarette smoking,” the study’s author Dr. Janiper Kwak-Chae of Stony Brook School of Medicine in New York, said by email.

Kwak-Chae presented the data May 21-22 at the American College of Preventive Medicine’s conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“By recognizing that a majority of these young adults are seeking health sources from the internet rather than a healthcare provider, healthcare providers should help ensure that young adults receive reputable health information when it comes to tobacco products, i.e. E. Cig and cigarettes,” he said.

The data are found in the Health Information National Trends Survey (HINTS), a collaboration between the U.S. National Cancer Institute and FDA that randomly sampled U.S. postal addresses in 2015. The survey includes 3,738 respondents, grouping them into three age brackets: 18-29, 30-64 and 65 years and older.

Preliminary findings suggest that people 65 and older are 4.5 times more likely than the youngest age bracket to obtain healthcare information from a provider as opposed to a non-healthcare provider. Likewise, those ages 30-64 are 2.6 times more likely than younger adults to get healthcare information from a provider.

At the same time, respondents in the two oldest age brackets were likely to view tobacco products as “very harmful,” the survey found.

Kwak-Chae analyzed responses from smokers versus non-smokers as well as each age brackets’ perception of the harmfulness of specific tobacco products.

Among non-smokers, he found, the two youngest age brackets were 44% to 60% less likely to view cigarettes as “very harmful” compared to the oldest respondents. And among all respondents, the youngest were also significantly less likely than the oldest to view certain products as “very harmful.” Those include e-cigarettes, hookah and other water pipes, roll-your-own cigarettes and cigars.

When the alternative is seeking no information at all, the two youngest groups were more than twice as likely as the oldest respondents to go online for healthcare information and 67% less likely to go to a healthcare provider for information.

The findings don’t imply that information found online skews perceptions in favor of tobacco. Rather, non-smokers who go online for healthcare information were 2.19 times more likely than those who sought no information at all to view cigarettes as “very harmful,” the survey found.

Still, Kwak-Chae said, “Much effort is needed to ensure that this age-cohort obtain reliable/reputable sources from their most sought-out source . . . and by doing so, make sure that the information they obtain will allow them to have a higher perception of harm to tobacco products and lower risk to adopting tobacco smoking.”

The findings come as no surprise, says Dr. Tamim Rajjo of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, who was not involved in the research. “We have been seeing a trend in the younger populations, especially millennials, to obtain their health information from sources other than healthcare professionals. We have also seen younger populations open to using multiple non-traditional tobacco products like e-cigarettes and hookah,” he said in an email.

One take-away from the data may be a renewed emphasis on telemedicine and other services that do not require an office visit, Rajjo said.

“The study comes in as a confirmation of previous research supporting the shift in healthcare delivery to younger populations who are seeking faster, more convenient care. Tele-medicine and services other than in-person office visits are slowly gaining popularity and should be integrated in health care delivery systems.”