In response to the release of the 2014 Monitoring the Future data, which show that more youth are experimenting with electronic cigarettes than smoking (in terms of past 30-day use), many anti-smoking groups have sounded the alarm. More specifically, these groups have told the public that these data demonstrate that e-cigarettes are normalizing smoking. As Sabrina Tavernese explains in her New York Times article: "Health advocates say the trend for e-cigarette use is dangerous because it is making smoking seem normal again." For example, the American Academy of Family Physicians argued that these data show that e-cigarette use is normalizing smoking.
I have already explained how anti-smoking groups are missing the most important finding from the Monitoring the Future study: that despite the dramatic increase in e-cigarette experimentation, youth smoking prevalence declined substantially and is at its lowest level in decades. This demonstrates that e-cigarettes are not a gateway to smoking, as has been claimed by the CDC and by some tobacco control advocates, led by Stan Glantz.
Thus, it turns out that the concern of anti-smoking groups that e-cigarettes will normalize smoking is misplaced. In fact, the evidence seems to suggest just the opposite. It may well be that e-cigarettes are de-normalizing smoking by actually diverting some youth who would otherwise have smoked to e-cigarettes, or by diverting some youth smokers to vaping. What e-cigarette use is normalizing is the use of electronic cigarettes, not the use of tobacco cigarettes. The anti-smoking groups fail to see this because they have drawn pre-determined conclusions based on their ideology, and they are not able to look objectively at the actual scientific evidence.
While the health groups got the story wrong, fortunately, Sabrina Tavernese got it right: "Health advocates say the trend for e-cigarette use is dangerous because
it is making smoking seem normal again. They also worry it could lead to
an increase in tobacco smoking, though the new data do not show that."
Today, I reveal another important finding of the recent surveys on electronic cigarette use that has been entirely ignored and which should lessen our concern about the public health implications of e-cigarette experimentation among youth.
The Rest of the Story
Another important finding of the recent surveys, which has been completely ignored, is the finding that despite the large number of youth who are experimenting with e-cigarettes, only a very small proportion are actually using these products regularly, in a way that could plausibly cause significant harm. Wills et al. found that although 29% of high school students had experimented with e-cigarettes, only 2% were using them more than once a week. This means that only 7% of all high school e-cigarette experimenters are vaping more than once a week, which should lessen concerns that these products are causing significant health harm.
The truth is that e-cigarettes pose little acute health harm. Almost all the potentially adverse health effects of e-cigarette use are related to long-term use (over a period of many years). The potential acute health effects are basically two-fold: (1) these products could potentially be a gateway to smoking; and (2) these products could addict kids to nicotine, causing prolonged use of e-cigarettes which could cause neurological damage.
As I discussed above, concern #1 does not appear to be a problem. And based on the Wills et al. data, it does not appear that #2 is currently a major problem either. The data suggests that despite the dramatic rise in e-cigarette experimentation, youth are not becoming addicted to these products. The pattern of e-cigarette use is almost entirely sporadic, with 93% of users vaping no more than once in an entire week. It is not clear that use of e-cigarettes at this level - only once a week - poses any significant health harms.
My point is that the public health significance of youth e-cigarette use may very well be positive, rather than negative. It is possible that these products have caused very little health harm, while at the same time, diverted many youth from smoking to vaping. We know that smoking experimentation quickly leads to addiction. But e-cigarette use does not appear to have the same level of addictiveness. Possibly because of the much lower and inconsistent nicotine delivery, these products do not appear to be creating e-cigarette addicts (among youth).
If it is true that e-cigarettes are diverting some youth away from smoking, then it is actually the case that e-cigarette use among youth is having a positive net effect on the public's health. Even if this is not the case, it appears that e-cigarette use among youth is having very little public health impact, thus meaning that the benefits of e-cigarettes for adults (smoking reduction and cessation) far outweigh the costs for youth.
Let me close by making one point very clear. I am not arguing that e-cigarette use among youth is not a concern, that youth e-cigarette use should be allowed or promoted, or that measures should not be taken to discourage e-cigarette use among youth. I support bans on the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, restrictions on advertising and marketing that is directed at youth, programs to educate youth about e-cigarettes, programs to discourage kids from using e-cigarettes, and most importantly, FDA regulations that require child-proof packaging on e-cigarettes and stronger warnings about the potential risks of nicotine (especially acute poisoning).
Nevertheless, it is critical that we get the science right. And as of today, the science suggests that: (1) e-cigarettes are not a gateway to smoking among youth; and (2) e-cigarettes may well be de-normalizing smoking rather than promoting it.