Is the rising popularity of electronic cigarettes a public health problem or a way for smokers to get their nicotine in a safer form? Right now, e-cigarettes appear to be both.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week announced that the number of youth who have tried e-cigarettes doubled between 2011 and 2012. One-tenth of high school students inhaled the devices’ vapor last year. About three-quarters of those who admitted using e-cigarettes currently also smoked traditional cigarettes. But roughly 160,000 students in the National Youth Tobacco Survey last year said they had tried only e-cigarettes.

E-cigarettes contain small amounts of liquid that an atomizer vaporizes for inhalation. They aren’t regulated heavily, so there isn’t much public information available on what’s in them.

But they clearly contain nicotine, which is addictive. Public health advocates warn that e-cigarette makers are using the same strategies that tobacco companies employed to attract young people — candy flavorings, for example. Lax state-level regulations also make it easy for young people to buy them.

Yet public health advocates also should appreciate the other side of e-cigarettes. For those unwilling or unable to give up nicotine, e-cigarettes offer something akin to the experience of smoking a real cigarette without the same concentration of toxins. The Food and Drug Administration has the power to demand information from companies on e-cigarettes’ ingredients, regulate their contents and control their sale, and it should get going.

If the FDA can get more addicted smokers onto e-cigarettes without encouraging children and teenagers to take up smoking, it would do some good.