As a famous intellectual once said, blindly following theories is a far-cry from an intellectual virtue – it’s an intellectual crime instead. This saying can be applied in all areas of life, especially in where policies are constantly being made. To this extent, a bad policy can have a profound negative impact in regards to the pursuit of improved public health.
This is why it’s baffling to see smart scientists remain fully committed to bad research. One such bad research is none other than the theory that electronic cigarettes are a gateway to smoking. Here’s why this is not even remotely close to the truth.
Not All Variables Can Lead to Predictions
Most hypotheses based on the gateway effect are rarely supported with sound evidence, meaning that it’s nearly impossible to prove which ingredients lead to a transition from one habit (vaping) to another (smoking). What could be known, however, is that some individuals (or groups) are highly inclined to take part in risky behaviors, and scientists can’t always predict all of the variables through which these people will engage in these behaviors.
Minimizing Risky Behaviors
Granted, there are good and bad ways to minimize risky behaviors among users, where prohibiting the use of just one product (in this case e-cigarettes) is certainly a bad way to go about this issue. In fact, it’s even worse if policy makers expect to decrease the consumption of one product (combustible cigarettes) by banning another product (vaping). At best, banning or strictly regulating electronic cigarettes will detract time, energy, and resources from finding a long-term solution. At worst however, users who would otherwise benefit from the reduced health risks from the alleged gateway product (e-cigarettes), are put at a higher risk of relapsing to a more dangerous one (traditional smokes).
Mishandling of Scientific Evidence
There is no shortage of misleading scientific research that, as we said, threatens to undermine the reduced harm of electronic cigarettes and urge vapers to reach for some of the more dangerous tobacco products as is. In fact, several of these studies have concluded that e-cigarettes are a gateway to traditional smoking in teens. In particular, one such study has concluded that kids who already use e-cigarettes are seven times more likely to relapse to smoking when compared to kids who don’t vape.
At first look, this research would have anyone to believe that the increased availability of electronic cigarettes leads to an increased use of cigarettes as well. However, both of these studies are missing one key variable – which is also suggested by the data – that younger individuals are more inclined to experiment.
During the two-year study, the odds that e-cigarette use would lead to smoking were halved, meaning that young vapers were two times less likely to reach for a cigarette in the second phase of the research. One variable that remained constant at each point in time over the course of the study, however, was cigarette use; those subjects who used cigarettes in the past were most likely to relapse to smoking in the future as well.
Finally, the study shows that e-cigarette use has a strong correlation to future smoking, but that doesn’t mean that vaping is also a direct precursor to cigarette use. This is a classic case of mixing correlation with causation, and the study’s own design prevents the researchers from seeing this major flaw in the final results.
Reading Population-Level Data
The reality is, the data from these studies is very inconclusive and it doesn’t prove the gateway hypothesis as promoted by the opponents of vaping. To help us better understand the real relationship between e-cigarettes and combustible cigarette use, we have to look at population-level data instead. This data shows that e-cigarette use almost tripled between 2013 and 2014; meanwhile, the same data showed that smoking decreased by 27 percent between 2013 and 2015, experiencing a drop by 8 percent in 2016 as well. If electronic cigarettes were indeed precursors to smoking, then this data should’ve shown an increase in smoking during all of those years too, and not the other way around (i.e. a significant drop in tobacco cigarette use).
In fact, the current use of cigarettes among adolescents is at an all-time low. As of 2016, youngsters are smoking 13% less cigarettes, which is down from additional 17% in the years before. Smoking among adolescents has never been that low.
The Right Approach
So, what can be done to avoid these science-wrapped misunderstandings in the future? First of all, there needs to be a panel of experts who would take all of the data, including physiological studies, population studies, and toxicology studies, and determine if an intervention will have a positive effect on public health.
Finally, the younger population needs to be properly educated on all-things vaping; this includes the different types of electronic vape devices (cigalike, vape pens, RDA), brands (Vaper Empire, Juul), health risks and concerns, cost, and more. By educating the youth, adolescents will be able to decide for themselves if vaping is something they’d like to do in the long run.