New UK study proves e-cigs aren’t a teen gateway to smoking

The study is all good news, but will it matter more than the headlines?

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A study published Tuesday shows that experimental vaping by tweens and teens doesn’t often lead to regular use — or to smoking. The study used data collected between 2015 and 2017, from five major surveys of more than 60,000 11- to 16-year-old British youth.

The study shows that among all those surveyed, fewer than three percent vaped regularly (once a week or more often), and that most regular vapers also smoked. Kids who had never smoked accounted for less than one percent of regular vapers.

And, as in the United States, teen smoking is declining.

Most studies that purport to find a gateway between vaping and smoking have not extracted data on regular users. Instead they rely on “ever” or last-30-day use. That’s why we see so many “gateway studies”, which seem designed more to grab headlines than to illuminate the issue.

“Recent studies have generated alarming headlines that e-cigarettes are leading to smoking,” said lead author Linda Bauld, Professor of Health Policy at the University of Stirling. “Our analysis of the latest surveys from all parts of the United Kingdom, involving thousands of teenagers shows clearly that for those teens who don’t smoke, e-cig experimentation is simply not translating into regular use.

“A small proportion of young people do experiment with e-cigs, but this does not appear to be leading to regular vaping or smoking in any numbers, indeed smoking rates in young people are continuing to decline,” added Deborah Arnott, CEO of Action on Smoking and Health.

The authors are some of the most well-known figures in British tobacco and nicotine science, including Bauld, Martin Dockrell of Public Health England, and Ann McNeill of King’s College London. The study was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

The data used came from the Youth Tobacco Policy Survey, the Schools Health Research Network Wales survey, the ASH Smokefree GB Youth survey 2016, the ASH Smokefree GB Youth survey 2017, and the Scottish Schools Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance Use Survey.

Do headlines matter more than the science itself?

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British newspaper readers were greeted Tuesday morning with the exciting news:

E-cigarette use by teenagers doesn´t lead to smoking, experts state

Fears over e-cigarettes leading to smoking for young people unfounded – study

Meanwhile, readers of The Independent saw this screaming instead:

HOW E-CIGARETTES COULD BE A GATEWAY TO REAL CIGARETTES FOR BRITAIN’S YOUNG

That’s because that paper’s editors chose today to pass on the major study and instead reprint a two-week-old article from The Conversation by the author of a recent study that claimed far different results than the new one — or at least different conclusions.

But as is often the case, if you skip the article and read the study itself, things aren’t so cut-and-dried. Included in the conclusion are a list of seven reasons that vaping might NOT be a gateway to smoking, and the authors note, “However, there is no direct evidence yet to suggest that ever use of e-cigarettes normalises cigarette use.”

Scientists and (maybe) regulators who read the study will grasp the distinctions the authors make. Unfortunately, most of the general public without a specific interest in the topic will pass on the article (and the study) — in which case the headline has the result the editors hope for: fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

Let’s hope the good headlines had more effect today in the U.K. than the bad ones.

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Jim McDonald
I spend most of my time studying the regulatory, legislative and scientific challenges to vaping, advocating for our right to exist, and talking with others who do the same. Consider me a source for information, and feel free to agree or disagree with anything I say. I love good coffee and sweet Michigan cherries. My childhood hero was Gordie Howe.