One of the most common arguments against vaping is that electronic cigarettes could act as a “gateway” drug, encouraging non-smokers to try them then move on to smoking. It’s never really explained why someone might try vaping and then move to smoking, of course. This would be like trying an iPhone then deciding that what you really, really need is a 1912 Marconi radio transmitter that only sends Morse code. Vaping is a lot cheaper than smoking, it tastes better and it doesn’t sprinkle bits of ash all over your belongings; in short, it’s better.
However, anti-nicotine activists keep trying to prove that vaping is all a plot by Big Tobacco to lure young people into a lifetime of setting fire to forty Marlboro a day. So, every so often, we get another scientific paper trying to prove that the teenager who tries a vape pen on Monday will be buying a pack of Lamberts by the end of the week. The latest one was published in the medical journal Tobacco Control last week.
Oh no! Science!
The study, by a team from the University of Michigan, used data from the CDC’s Monitoring the Future study. A group of American teenagers were surveyed twice, a year apart, and asked a series of questions about tobacco and nicotine use. The researchers analysed this data and came to some very frightening conclusions. They found that, among teens who hadn’t smoked before the age of 18, “recent vapers were more than 4 times (relative risk (RR)=4.78) more likely to report past-year cigarette smoking at follow-up” and claimed vaping is “a one-way bridge to cigarette smoking”.
This is an alarming statistic. If vaping really does make kids four times as likely to start smoking we have a bit of a problem. Before we all throw away our mods and start campaigning for a ban, though, there are a couple of things we should consider.
For a start, one of the basic principles of science is “correlation does not equal causation”. Just because two things seem connected that doesn’t mean that one is causing the other. It certainly doesn’t mean that vaping caused those kids to start smoking. Maybe they were curious about smoking but all they could find was an e-cigarette. Or, more likely, maybe teenagers who try something are also more likely to try something else. It’s a safe bet that the ones who vaped and smoked are also more likely to have tried alcohol and sex.
Small isn’t beautiful
Anyway, that’s one problem with the Michigan study. Here’s another: It’s total rubbish. The paper itself makes that scary claim about kids who vaped being four times as likely to smoke, but how many kids was that? You can search the paper and you won’t find an answer. However the actual data can be tracked down, and the answer is shocking.
Out of a total of 347 teenagers who completed both surveys, a whole four had tried an e-cigarette in the month before the first one then gone on to smoke in the next year. Four. The scientists reached their alarming conclusions based on just four kids. A number that small means nothing. It’s just statistical noise.
And it gets even worse. It’s not even as if these teens had become pack a day smokers by the time they filled in the second survey. All four of them, when asked how often they had smoked in the previous year, answered “Once or twice”. In other words they tried vaping and then tried smoking – but they didn’t keep smoking.
The inconvenient truth
Back in the real world we know there’s no gateway effect. We know this because, despite all the dire predictions, teen smoking rates continue to fall faster than ever before. If electronic cigarettes really are a Big Tobacco conspiracy to turn kids into smokers (Hint: They’re not) it isn’t working.