A recent study published this Tuesday is bringing into to question the real truths about youth use and experimentation with e-cigarettes. The study was published March 31st, 2015 in the journal BioMed Central Public Health and it claims that in a survey of British school students 1 in 5 has experimented with e-cigarettes.
Great Britain, like the US, is awaiting regulation to enact a widespread ban on sales to minors, which is why the timing only makes this debate on youth use more intense.
The study surveyed more than 16,000 people aged 14-17 years in northwest England back in 2013. Of those surveyed, 19.2 percent said they had tried or purchased e-cigarettes at some point. Of that nearly 20 percent, over three-quarters were smokers.
The part that scares the critics, however, is the 15 percent of teenage vapers surveyed had never smoked regular cigarettes at all. This spurs the debate that e-cigarettes are luring teenagers into a nicotine addiction that could potentially turn into an addiction to smoking traditional cigarettes themselves.
Karen Hughes of the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool’s John Moores University and other authors of the study said the research points to experimentation, rather than a desire to quit smoking, as the main driving force behind teenage and adolescent e-cigarette use. That seems fitting, as most people aged 14 to 17 are just beginning to try things like tobacco or e-cigs, and have yet to develop the level of addiction to cigarettes where they desire to quit.
The study went on to show that there was a connection between students who experiment with alcohol and those that experiment with e-cigarettes. Teenagers who drank alcohol were “significantly more likely” to have used e-cigarettes, with frequent binge-drinkers more than four times more likely to have done so. This does not suggest that e-cigarettes lead to bad behavior, but that they are more popular among youth who are more apt to experimentation.
Wilson Compton of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, however, believes e-cigarette use is just one more “bad” thing for teens to do. He wrote in an accompanying commentary to the study, that e-cigarettes, at least for some, were adding a new recreational drug experience to an existing repertoire of risky behaviors.
Other experts, however, are clear that making conclusions based on these survey results is a risky proposition. It is hard to know the true reasons for experimentation when the survey didn’t cover those aspects with their questioning. Would those people who had never smoked cigarettes, but tried vaping, would have tried regular cigarettes if that was the only option? The study also did not follow up to see whether children who had admitted to vaping had continued to use e-cigarettes after experimenting for the first time.
Linda Bauld is a professor of health policy at the University of Stirling, and she is one of many experts who believe this latest study doesn’t exactly prove much of anything. “Other surveys have so far found that progressing from ever trying an e-cigarette to regular use amongst non-smoking children is very rare or entirely absent, suggesting that, to date, e-cigarettes are not responsible for creating a new generation of nicotine addicts,” said Dr. Bauld. Without proper follow up questions being addressed in the study, you really cannot anticipate the actual teen use of e-cigarettes, and if any of the critics claims about gateway use are even really accurate.
Marcus Munafo is a professor of biological psychiatry at Bristol University and he also criticized the researchers in this study for their portrayal of e-cigarettes. “To describe electronic cigarette use as ‘a new drug use option’ and part of ‘at-risk teenagers’ substance using repertoires’ is unnecessarily alarmist, given the evidence that regular use among never smokers is negligible, the lack of evidence that electronic cigarette use acts as a gateway to tobacco use, and the likely low level of harm associated with electronic cigarette use.” So many critics are so quick to vilify e-cigarettes that they truly are not giving them fair credit for the good they can truly do. By creating unnecessary alarm surrounding these near harmless devices, critics are causing people to go up in arms over an issue that pits them in a counterproductive position to their supposed outcome. With critics claiming they are acting with public health as their greatest interest, why do they attack a product that stands to improve public health in a way that nothing has been able to do in our lifetimes?
In addition, trying to paint e-cigarettes as gateway devices only creates more controversy, where there truly does not need to be any. The bottom line truth is that e-cigarettes are safer, we should not inhibit them, even if we don’t want children to start vaping. And of course NO ONE wants children to pick up a nicotine habit, but it is simply a sign of the times as e-cigarettes become more popular with adults, they will become more popular among the youth population as well.
What every survey about youth use seems to fail to ask is if the person, the never smoker, who tried e-cigarettes is if they would have tried regular cigarettes if there was not an e-cigarette option. No survey seems to cover this question, but looking at the trend of experimentation that seems to signify these youth e-cig users, it seems likely that they were going to experiment with something, whether that e-cig existed or not.
It may seem to the casual vaper that the issue of youth use really doesn’t affect them, but the critics coming after e-cigarettes stand to make all vapers suffer. Many critics believe e-cigarettes should be heavily regulated, and some believe they should not even be allowed at all. The negative press only hurts the industry, standing to make regulation even tougher and more difficult for the smaller e-cig companies to overcome. In the long run, that may mean your favorite brand might disappear from the shelf at the vape store, heck, the vape store could vanish altogether too. That is why making sure the truth about these studies, not the conveniently sensational headlines, is out there and available for those who want to read it.