In the first study to examine the hypothesis that electronic cigarettes are a gateway for youth to become addicted to cigarettes, Dr. Ted Wagener from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center reports being able to find only one young person who initiated nicotine use with e-cigarettes and then went on to smoke cigarettes, out of a sample of 1,300 college students.
The study has not yet been published, but it was presented Tuesday at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.
According to Brenda Goodman's HealthDay article summarizing the study: "E-cigarettes don't appear to entice teens to try smoking tobacco, a new study says. ... Last month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
warned that "vaping," or inhaling the nicotine vapors from e-cigarettes,
might be a dangerous new fad that could set teens up for smoking. In just one year, the number of kids in grades six through 12 who
said they'd ever tried an e-cigarette more than doubled, rising from 3.3
percent to 6.8 percent. Among the 2.1 percent who said they were
current e-cigarette users, more than three-quarters said they also
smoked regular cigarettes. Given that overlap, many health experts worried that e-cigarettes
might be acting like a gateway drug, sucking kids more deeply into
nicotine addiction, and law officials urged the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration to regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products."
"The new study suggests that may not be the case. Researchers surveyed 1,300 college students about their tobacco and nicotine use. The average age of study participants was 19. "We asked what the first tobacco product they ever tried was and what
their current tobacco use looked like," said researcher Theodore
Wagener, an assistant professor of general and community pediatrics at
the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, in Oklahoma City. Overall, 43 students said their first nicotine product was an
e-cigarette. Of that group, only one person said they went on to smoke
regular cigarettes. And the vast majority who started with e-cigarettes
said they weren't currently using any nicotine or tobacco."
"It didn't seem as though it really proved to be a gateway to
anything," said Wagener, who presented his findings at a meeting of the
American Association for Cancer Research, in National Harbor, Md."
The Rest of the Story
This study provides preliminary evidence that electronic cigarettes are not currently serving as a major gateway to cigarette smoking. Of course, more studies of this nature, as well as longitudinal studies, are necessary to firmly answer this question. And importantly, this only reflects the current situation and things can change at any time. It is important that we remain vigilant and closely monitor youth electronic cigarette use over time.
I should also make it clear that in no way am I arguing that sales and marketing restrictions are not needed. In fact, I am hoping that the FDA will promulgate regulations that do strictly regulate the sale and marketing of electronic cigarettes to youth.
What this evidence does highlight is how unfortunate it was that CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden disseminated to the public a conclusion about this research question, telling the public that we already know the answer and that electronic cigarettes are a gateway to tobacco addiction. Dr. Frieden stated that: "many kids are starting out with e-cigarettes and then going
on to smoke conventional cigarettes."
Unfortunately, this premature speculation (or conclusion, as the above statement does not seem to be speculative) led to widespread media dissemination to the public of the news that electronic cigarettes are a gateway to tobacco addiction. These articles are already having an effect on policy makers throughout the country.
In a Forbes magazine online column today, Jacob Sullum explains how many tobacco control advocates, including Dr. Frieden, "jumped all over CDC survey data indicating
that the percentage of teenagers who have tried e-cigarettes doubled
(from 3.3 percent to 6.8 percent) between 2011 and 2012." Sullum writes: "'Many teens who start with e-cigarettes may be condemned to struggling
with a lifelong addiction to nicotine and conventional cigarettes,' CDC
Director Tom Frieden worried.
But the survey data [the CDC data] provided no evidence that e-cigarettes are a
gateway to the conventional kind, and a new study [the Wagener study] casts further doubt on
The issue of whether electronic cigarettes serve as a gateway to youth tobacco addiction is a very serious one. It should not be taken lightly. If these products lead to increased cigarette smoking among youth then this harm would offset the benefits of enhanced smoking cessation and electronic cigarettes would no longer have net public health benefits. So this is a crucial research question.
But I emphasize that it is a "question." It does a disservice to the public to draw pre-determined conclusions, as Dr. Frieden did in telling the public that we already have the answer: kids are starting out with e-cigarettes and going on to smoke conventional cigarettes.
Our public policies must be science-based. But when one draws pre-determined conclusions, rather than rely on the scientific evidence, this does not lead to evidence-based policies. My fear is that because of a strong pre-existing ideology against electronic cigarettes because they simulate the physical actions of smoking, tobacco control groups are drawing conclusions based on ideology rather than on science.