Vaping is probably safer than traditional smoking, though scientists aren’t yet able to say for sure. Either way, they’ve been positioned as a less terrible alternative to regular cigarettes. But there’s a problem: A new study suggests many young vapers would have never started smoking in the first place if e-cigarettes didn’t exist.
As the team of University of California, San Francisco researchers point out in the paper, there was some hope when e-cigarettes became available in 2007 that they would hasten the decline of cigarettes, as would-be smokers switched to the relatively healthier vaping. But their review of a decades’ worth of annual National Youth Tobacco Surveys found no evidence of an accelerated decline. Sure, fewer people are smoking cigarettes now than 10 years ago, but e-cigarettes don’t appear to have much to do with that. In fact, vaping has become popular enough that the researchers found higher total rates of cigarette and e-cigarette use among young people in 2014 compared to 2011
The results become particularly interesting — or possibly just disheartening — when you consider the profile of a young vaper. The surveys, which quiz tens of thousands of sixth-graders to high school seniors on their smoking habits and preferences, make it possible to determine what factors make a teenager more likely to start smoking. They might live with a smoker, or be more willing to wear clothing with a tobacco-related logo, or say they are more likely to accept a cigarette given by a friend.
Not every smoker fits that model, but it’s very accurate. Between 2011 and 2014, the researchers found 75 percent of kids who had smoked in the last month had the risk profiles of smokers. But for e-cigarettes, the number was much, much lower: Only 11 to 23 percent of kids who had vaped in the previous 30 days fit the smoker’s profile. And sure, vaping isn’t the same thing as smoking, but this is one instance where the idea of a gateway drug has some actual scientific backing. Multiple studies have found that e-cigarette users are about three times more likely to start smoking regular cigarettes within a year.
Even those who don’t start smoking still have to contend with the health risks of e-cigarettes, which they likely would have otherwise avoided. After all, the model suggests that most young vapers, given just a choice of cigarettes or nothing, would likely have picked nothing. Maybe these young people didn’t start out at high risk for smoking, but that’s pretty much exactly what they became after they started vaping.