In an article published yesterday in USA Today, Dr. Stanton Glantz states definitively that electronic cigarettes are a gateway to smoking. He was quoted as stating: "There's no question that e-cigarettes are a gateway to smoking."
The article highlights the findings of two new studies showing that rates of electronic cigarette use among youth continue to rise dramatically. According to the article: "About 25% of high school students in Connecticut and 29% of teens in
Hawaii have used e-cigarettes, according to separate studies. About 18%
of the Hawaii teens and 12% of the Connecticut high school students had
used e-cigarettes in the past month. Both studies were done in 2013. Those
rates are much higher than the latest data from the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, which found 4.5% of high schoolers and 1.1% of
middle schoolers had used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days in 2013. Authors of the Hawaii study, published online Monday in Pediatrics, note that e-cigarette use has grown exponentially among kids, doubling every year since 2009."
Today, the University of Michigan released data from the 2014 Monitoring the Future study which confirm that among a national sample of 8th, 10th, and 12th grade youth, rates of electronic cigarette use are between 9% and 17%. The prevalence of past 30-day use of electronic cigarettes was 8.7% among 8th graders, 16.2% among 10th graders, and 17.1% among 12th graders.
The Monitoring the Future study also found that the prevalence of cigarette smoking decreased substantially in all three groups. For 8th graders, the prevalence of past 30-day smoking dropped from 4.5% to 4.0%; for 10th graders, current smoking prevalence dropped from 9.1% to 7.2%, and among 12th graders, smoking prevalence dropped from 16.3% to 13.6%. In 2014, cigarette smoking was at its lowest level in decades.
The most dramatic declines in smoking occurred between 2011 and 2014. For 8th graders, smoking prevalence dropped from 6.1% to 4.0%; among 10th graders, smoking prevalence dropped from 11.8% to 7.2%; and among 12th graders, smoking prevalence dropped from 18.7% to 13.6%. However, the decline in smoking from 2013 to 2014 was by far the most substantial year-to-year decrease during this period.
The Rest of the Story
It is clear that experimentation with electronic cigarettes among youth has increased dramatically from 2011 to 2014. But despite this dramatic increase, the prevalence of current smoking among youth decreased dramatically. And the sharpest decline in smoking occurred concurrently with the largest increase in electronic cigarette use.
Dr. Glantz's conclusion - that electronic cigarettes are a gateway to smoking - just doesn't hold up in light of these data. If electronic cigarettes were serving as a major gateway to smoking, then we wouldn't expect to see such dramatic declines in smoking concurrent with dramatic increases in electronic cigarette experimentation. If anything, these national data suggest that electronic cigarettes may actually be serving as a deterrent to smoking by diverting kids who might otherwise try smoking over to a non-tobacco nicotine product. Even if it is the case that kids who might not have tried smoking are experimenting with e-cigarettes, this is very different from claiming that e-cigarettes are a gateway to smoking.
Furthermore, there simply are no studies to support the conclusion that e-cigarettes are a gateway to smoking. The only existing evidence suggests that e-cigarettes are not serving as a major gateway to smoking. Thus, Glantz has drawn a conclusion that is simply unsupported by any evidence.
Glantz now joins the CDC in disseminating the unsupported conclusion that e-cigarette experimentation is a gateway to smoking. One unfortunate consequence of public health agencies or researchers spreading this misinformation is that we risk losing our credibility, not just on the issue of electronic cigarettes, but on other issues as well. If we are not credible with respect to our opinions on electronic cigarettes, then why should the public trust us when we comment about tobacco cigarettes?
Sadly, this story simply adds to the long list of examples of the degradation in the rigor of science in the tobacco control movement.