Teen smoking is the kind of subject that gets everyone’s attention. From anti-smoking advocates, to parents of teenagers, to anyone who understands the harm of tobacco smoke. We are long past the stage where people can underrate the immense harm that smoking does and the way it hooks our youth. Something about smoking interests our young people, that much we know. Whether it’s the “cool factor” or what they see in the movies, or what they see at home if their parents smoke, the continuation of supporting Big Tobacco is terrible. So when an electronic cigarette study supposedly links ecig use with future smoking for teens, it gets our attention.
That’s what happened when a recent electronic cigarette study made headlines by claiming “Teens’ Ecigarette Use Linked With Later Smoking.” That sounds pretty bad, especially with all the talk of ecig flavors supposedly playing a role in getting young people hooked on vaping (that isn’t true either, by the way). It instantly made us take a closer look and see what the study was looking at specifically and how it was conducted, because we know how easy it is to skew data to fit your goals.
In this case, the research was conducted in just 10 Los Angeles high schools but did cover about 2,500 14-year-olds who had never tried a traditional tobacco product up until that point. The study of teen smoking showed that 9% of the kids had tried electronic cigarettes, and that about a third of them would go on to try traditional tobacco cigarettes, cigars, or water pipes in the following 6 months. This was compared to only 8% of those who had never tried ecigarettes and would go on to try different methods of smoking traditional tobacco.
What the results point to is that young kids who try ecigs are more than three times more likely to try traditional tobacco smoking down the road, regardless of ecig flavors or anything like that. It seems shocking and scary and we can’t blame people for being outraged if they are, but that is before we take a step back from the headline and use some logic to look at this from another angle. There are a few flaws in the way this electronic cigarette study is presented and they are highly influencing the way it is perceived.
Teen Smoking Study Flawed
First of all, this study didn’t distinguish at all between kids that may have tried an electronic cigarette once in their life and those who vape consistently. This is a very common flaw that we encounter in many studies, and it is one that really provides an incomplete picture. If you have tried playing tennis once in the past year, does that make you a tennis player? It certainly shouldn’t describe you as one in any serious study. This is the same flaw the study suffers from when they simply ask these kids if they have tried a traditional tobacco product, not if they have picked up smoking as a habit.
In that same vein, the researcher includes all traditional tobacco methods together, as if they are the same. Trying tobacco cigarettes once, or even making a daily habit of it, is very different from cigar smoking or water pipe smoking. Cigar smoking is used by some only in a celebratory environment and water pipe smoking, also known as hookah smoking, is a hugely popular trend that hasn’t been shown to be related to traditional tobacco smoking at all, much less vaping.
But the most important flaw we see here is the fact that none of this really ties cigarette smoking back to ecigarette vaping. There are always going to be some kids who will eventually try smoking. This is an unfortunate fact that is borne out by the fact that smoking levels only declined by small amounts for years and were relatively flat until electronic cigarettes came along. We don’t know exactly why some teens pick up smoking while others don’t, but it stands to reason that if a kid is attracted to electronic cigarettes he may have well been attracted to analogue cigarette for the same reason. There isn’t a cause and effect correlation here and that is deeply troubling.
Researchers of this particular electronic cigarette study have said they have accounted for this by factoring in traits of those more likely to use tobacco. This would include parental smoking, delinquent behavior and impulsiveness. But this is a far cry from anything really scientific. In fact, the University of Southern California researcher who conducted this study admitted as such. In one breathe, Adam Leventhal insists his study, “does little to dispel concerns that recreational e-cigarette use might be associated with moving on to these very harmful tobacco products,” but in another breathe he says that more research is needed to determine if electronic cigarettes are really the cause.
Where Is The Cause And Effect?
We don’t see any way this research has distinguished between those who were already likely to smoke anyway, and those who might have been “led” to teen smoking due to electronic cigarettes.
So while director of tobacco research and treatment center at Massachusetts General Hospital Dr. Nancy Rigotti says this “is the strongest evidence to date that e-cigarettes might pose a health hazard by encouraging adolescents to start smoking conventional tobacco products,” we think it is far from being evidence. If this is the best they can come up with, well they better keep trying.
It doesn’t pass the smell test by any manner and is highly questionable for the flaws we listed above. The bigger problem is that a headline like this, similar to the ones that claim ecig flavors are getting our kids to vape, take us away from the focus of what is important. Nobody wants kids smoking and nobody wants kids vaping either. We don’t believe that the connection between the two is anywhere near being proven, but even so we don’t want to see kids vaping. This is a product for adults and really only for smokers who are trying to make the switch away from traditional tobacco cigarettes. We fully endorse bans on minors using vapor products, because nobody should get started on ecigs for no reason.
Yet we all know how the real world works and that kids are going to try things, sometimes stupid things like smoking. It’s how many of us got into the positions we are in as current smokers or ex-smokers that spent years trying to quit. The focus needs to be on education for young people and in minimizing their contact with electronic cigarettes as much as we can, similar to how we treat tobacco cigarettes. The answer is not tossing in these products completely with tobacco and claiming they are a gateway to smoking, because they have simply not proven to be that. We welcome more data on this subject and hopefully future studies will do more to ensure a clearer picture is created for the impact of electronic cigarettes on our youth.