Are Young People Using Vape Devices as Gateway to Smoking
Electronic cigarettes have become highly polarizing. Former smokers celebrate quitting traditional cigarettes with their help, and some studies show that they’re more effective than nicotine patches or gum in stopping tobacco use. Yet antismoking advocates, numerous health organizations and government agencies don’t believe they have any merits over tobacco.
One of the biggest fears about e-cigs involves potential use by young people, and within that fear is the question of whether or not they act as a gateway to traditional cigarette use. The reports are mixed, but evidence seems to say no. Because e-cigarettes are still fairly new, there aren’t enough studies yet to allow strong conclusions.
Not a Gateway
The American Journal of Preventive Medicine recently reported on a 2012 to 2013 study in which researchers cautiously concluded that e-cigarettes are not a strong gateway drug. Just over 1300 students at the University of Oklahoma were asked about first “tobacco” use, using more than one product and also current use.
E-cigarettes were part of an Emerging Tobacco Products (ETPs) category along with nicotine dissolvable’s and snus. Only 59 respondents tried ETPs first. Of those, only one continued to use an e-cigarette occasionally, and one other student currently used traditional cigarettes.
The report admits various limitations in the study’s scope, including relying on survey data without testing for current nicotine use and only questioning college students. Still, the study proposes “that the uptake potential of current ETPs is limited among youth,” and ETPs “are not necessarily strong gateways to regular tobacco use.”
Definitely a Gateway?
In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published findings from a National Youth Tobacco Survey, which found that the number of high school students who had ever used an e-cigarette went from 4.7 percent in 2011 to 10 percent in 2012. Also in 2011, 1.5 percent of high school students had used an e-cig in the last 30 days. In 2012, that number was 2.8 percent, and in 2013, it rose to 4.5 percent. The CDC expressed concerns about nicotine addiction and the possibility of it leading to use of traditional cigarettes. Many citations led with “gateway” and buried “possible.”
The data further showed that in 2012, 80.5 percent of high school students currently using e-cigs also used traditional cigarettes. Conversely, just 7.2 percent of those who reported trying e-cigs had never smoked. There doesn’t seem to be great incentive to start e-cigs, but that 80 percent doesn’t say which direction the dual users went.
The University of Michigan reported that between 2011 and 2014, the prevalence of smoking dropped by 4.6 percent for 10th graders and 5.1 percent for 12th graders; the biggest decline occurred between 2013 and 2014. This seems to suggest that the trend is moving away from traditional cigarettes and toward electronic ones, not the other way around.
Data vs. Conclusions
In 2014, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study on mice and rats, discussing how addictive nicotine is regardless of the delivery method. The Columbia University researchers said that nicotine “acts as a gateway drug on the brain,” and it increases the addictiveness of other drugs. They also stated that this increased effect likely occurs even with second-hand nicotine exposure. While they seem to be talking only about brain chemistry, not general human behavior, when asked about e-cigarettes leading to use of traditional cigarettes, one researcher answered, “That’s certainly a possibility.” Guess how the media reported it.
No one’s saying that nicotine is harmless or OK for kids, but there doesn’t appear to be actual data showing e cigarettes a gateway threat. There are only statements of possibility and alarmist conclusions. While fearful views splash across headlines, calmer heads await further studies.