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Vaping Is Not A ‘Gateway’ To Smoking, It’s A Gateway To Bad Research

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Estimated 4 min read

Assumptions that are centered around the ‘gateway effect‘ are rarely backed by evidence. A simple evaluation into what would actually be necessary to show that particular chemicals are ‘gateways’ reveals that it’s practically impossible to do so.

What we do know for sure is that some individuals are going to do risky things, and we can’t always anticipate the trajectory of the elevated risk behavior in which they will choose to engage.

Truth be told, there are methods to lessen the initiation of high-risk behaviors.

However, prohibiting one particular product in the hopes of reducing the use of another fairly different product should not be one of these methods.

At best, doing so redirects time and energy away from finding a better or more long-term solution to the original problem. At worst, people who might normally have benefited from the harm reduction courtesy of the alleged ‘gateway’ product – like e-cigarettes – are potentially at risk of relapsing back to a far more harmful product such as their more traditional counterparts.

Regrettably, we are certainly not lacking in deceptive, misleading, or just plain inaccurate research that threatens to drive potential users away from reduced-harm solutions – like e-cigarettes – and push them towards the more commonly accessible, yet far more dangerous, tobacco products.

A multitude of scientific studies have recently come to the conclusion that e-cigarette use is a ‘gateway’ to combustible cigarette use in young adults, and one study in particular concluded that kids who use e-cigarettes are 7 times more likely to take up smoking traditional cigarettes when compared to kids who haven’t used e-cigarettes.

Upon first glance, this stunning number would certainly lead any reasonable person to think that the availability of e-cigarettes will cause kids to graduate to combustibles. What’s lacking from this conclusion – and what the data really indicates – is that kids are kids, and kids experiment. For some reason our current generation seems to have forgotten this fact which may seem quite obvious to older generations.

Over the course of the two-year study, the actual relationship between e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes diminished, which means that in the second phase of the study the odds that e-cigarette use might lead to cigarette use was of half the likelihood than in the first phase. Also worth noting is that at each time-point in the study, cigarette use continued to be the single highest predictor of long-term cigarette use.

While e-cigarette use is associated with cigarette use, this study design cannot demonstrate that e-cigarette use causes cigarette use.

Why then, do people choose to believe that e-cigarette use leads to smoking and not the other way around?

What no study can easily portray – and this study is certainly no different – is the actual population of youth that would have taken up smoking combustible cigarettes irrespective of e-cigarette access or use.

Consequently, no study can definitively demonstrate that e-cigarette use is required for, or indicative of, future combustible cigarette use. Establishing the ‘gateway’ theory would require incontrovertible proof of both of these things.

The actual reality is, we are not able to determine if e-cigarettes are, or could be a gateway to combustible cigarette use.

In fact, population-level data provides evidence directly contradicting the gateway hypothesis: Even though e-cigarette experimentation tripled between 2013 and 2014, traditional cigarette use diminished by 27 percent in between 2013 and 2015. In 2016, use of traditional cigarettes by smokers fell another 8 percent.

If e-cigarettes have indeed been a gateway, we would expect simultaneous increases in traditional smoking prevalence to match the explosion in e-cigarette use we’ve seen in the last few years, not the other way around.

Bottom line, if there was any weight to e-cigarettes actually being a ‘gateway’, in spite of all the evidence pointing to them not being one, then given the steady decline in smoking rates e-cigarettes are terrible gateways into traditional cigarette use.

Moreover, as of right now, cigarette use among high school teens is at an all-time low of 13 percent, down from 17 percent in previous years.

E-cigarette use is also down, falling to 11 percent from 16 percent in previous years. Use of tobacco among teens has never been this low.

While the overwhelming and vast majority of research really does not support the gateway hypothesis, and the only research that will does so through drawing fragile or misleading conclusions, it would be incredibly irresponsible for anyone to create public policies in opposition to the weight of evidence.

We cannot merely let bad science in service of bad hypotheses support public policies, unless we also want bad public policies.

Currently located in Sydney, Australia, I have been vaping since 2009 and became active in the e-cigarette industry in late 2015. Since then I’ve had the pleasure of visiting over 700 shops in 6 countries.

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