According to a study that recently appeared in Tobacco Control, ecigarettes are putting teenagers at serious risk. Researchers from the University of Hawaii Cancer Center alleged that ecigarettes actually lead teenagers to start using tobacco. As the world reacted in alarm to this shocking news, Forbes contributor Jacob Sullum actually looked at the data and realized that the scientists got it all wrong. Rather than making teens smoke more, the data shows that ecigs could be responsible for a serious decline in teen tobacco use.
“Smoking among American teenagers has continued to decline, reaching the lowest rate on record last year, as more and more of them experiment with vaping,” Sullum wrote. “These opposite trends seem inconsistent with warnings that the rising popularity of e-cigarettes will encourage consumption of the real thing.”
Critics might argue that teen smoking rates would be falling even more if ecigarettes weren’t luring them back in. But Sullum said the study’s data gives no evidence to support that theory. The research in question was centered on a survey of 2,300 high school students who were questioned about their tobacco use. The study found that students who had never smoked in 2013 were three times more likely to be using tobacco a year later if they tried an ecigarette during that time.
Sullum argued that the researchers are playing a game of semantics, twisting the data to reach a conclusion that just isn’t supported by the facts. “Although the researchers talk about the ‘onset of smoking,’ the measure they used was whether subjects had tried conventional cigarettes at all,” Sullum explained. “It’s not clear how many of those (who tried a cigarette) will ever be regular cigarette smokers.”
While the study paints a cause-and-effect link between ecigs and tobacco use, it just wasn’t there in the data. Instead, we see that some teens are more likely than others to experiment. Those who experiment with ecigs are also likely to experiment with cigarettes and vice versa.
The Hawaiian study claimed that teens jump from ecigs to tobacco because it’s a similar experience and they can get a bigger hit of nicotine if they use the traditional cigarettes. In essence, the study concluded that ecigs were a gateway that led teens to tobacco use. “E-cigarettes mimic the look and feel of cigarettes, and the inhaling and exhaling of e-cigarette aerosol produces some of the same sensory experiences as smoking a cigarette,” the researchers explained. “This similar experience may contribute to an inclination towards trying cigarette smoking.”
But Sullum argued that there is no real evidence to support this theory. “Even if it were true that teenagers who smoke tend to vape first, that would not prove vaping causes smoking.” The logic used in this study is similar to what we’ve seen from marijuana critics who claim that smoking pot is a gateway to heroin use. Realistically, thousands of people use cannabis and never go anywhere near heroin. But many heroin users have tried marijuana at some point in the past. That doesn’t mean that smoking pot leads to heroin addiction. It just means that some people are more likely to experiment with both drugs and pot was probably first because it’s cheaper and easily accessible.
The same gateway argument is at play here with ecigarettes. Just because a teenager tries an ecig once and then later starts smoking, it doesn’t mean that the ecig is responsible for the future tobacco use. In reality, the teen would have probably ended up smoking regardless of access to ecigarettes.
Instead of viewing ecigs as a gateway to tobacco use, most studies show that they have the opposite effect by causing teen smoking rates to decline. According to a Monitoring the Future Study, teen tobacco use dramatically declined after ecigarettes hit the US market. Coincidence? Probably not.
The bottom line is that teens shouldn’t be smoking or using ecigs and we need laws to prohibit sales to minors. However, some ecig critics are pushing for hard nosed bans on ecig flavors that adults enjoy by using the argument that we need to protect our teens. In the Forbes article, Sullum insists that this would be a terrible mistake.
“Rules that make vaping less attractive to current smokers could undermine public health by impeding the replacement of cigarettes by a much less harmful alternative. Worrying about vapers who become smokers while overlooking smokers who become vapers is a recipe for deadly public policy.”
Do you think the gateway arguments will ultimately harm the ecig industry? Will the FDA ban flavors all to “protect the children” while they actually put adult smokers at higher risk?