Vaping, or use of e-cigarettes, has the potential to be a huge advance in public health. It provides an alternative to smoking that allows addicted smokers to get their nicotine fix without exposing them to all the harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke. This is a development that should be welcomed with open arms by everyone in the public health community, though oddly, it doesn’t seem to be. Many in the public health community are very much against vaping. The reasons for that might make an interesting blogpost for another day.
But today, I want to talk about a piece of research into vaping among teenagers that’s been in the news a lot today.
Despite the obvious upside of vaping, there are potential downsides. The concern is that it may be seen as a “gateway” to smoking. There is a theoretical risk that teenagers may be attracted to vaping and subsequently take up smoking. Obviously that would be a thoroughly bad thing for public health.
Clearly, it is an area that is important to research so that we can better understand what the downside might be of vaping.
So I was interested to see that a study has been published today that looks specifically at smoking among teenagers. Can that help to shed light on these important questions?
Looking at some of the stories in the popular media, you might think it could. We are told that e-cigs are the “alcopops of the nicotine world“, that there are “high rates of usage among secondary school pupils” and that e-cigs are “encouraging people to take up smoking“.
Those claims are, to use a technical term, bollocks.
Let’s look at what the researchers actually did. They used cross sectional questionnaire data in which a single question was asked about vaping: “have you ever tried or purchased e-cigarettes?”
The first thing to note is that the statistics are about the number of teenagers who have ever tried vaping. So they will be included in the statistics if they tried it once. Perhaps they were at a party and they had a single puff on a mate’s e-cig. The study gives us absolutely no information on the proportion of teenagers who vaped regularly. So to conclude “high rates of usage” just isn’t backed up by any evidence. Overall, about 1 in 5 of the teenagers answered yes to the question. Without knowing how many of those became regular users, it becomes very hard to draw any conclusions from the study.
But it gets worse.
The claim that vaping is encouraging people to take up smoking isn’t even remotely supported by the data. To do that, you would need to know what proportion of teenagers who hadn’t previously smoked try vaping, and subsequently go on to start smoking. Given that the present study is a cross sectional one (ie participants were studied only at a single point in time), it provides absolutely no information on that.
Even if you did know that, it wouldn’t tell you that vaping was necessarily a gateway to smoking. Maybe teenagers who start vaping and subsequently start smoking would have smoked anyway. To untangle that, you’d ideally need a randomised trial of areas in which vaping is available and areas in which it isn’t, though I can’t see that ever being done. The next best thing would be to look at changes in the prevalence of smoking among teenagers before and after vaping became available. If it increased after vaping became available, that might give you some reason to think vaping is acting as a gateway to smoking. But the current study provides absolutely no information to help with this question.
I’ve filed post this under “Dodgy reporting”, and of course the journalists who wrote about the study in such uncritical terms really should have known better, but actually I think the real fault lies here with the authors of the paper. In their conclusions, they write “Findings suggest that e-cigarettes are being accessed by teenagers more for experimentation than smoking cessation.”
No, they really don’t show that at all. Of those teenagers who had tried e-cigs, only 15.8% were never-smokers. And bear in mind that most of the overall sample (61.2%) were never-smokers. That suggests that e-cigs are far more likely to be used by current or former smokers than by non-smokers. In fact while only 4.9% of never smokers had tried e-cigs, (remember, that may mean only trying them once), 50.7% of ex-smokers had tried them. So a more reasonable conclusion might be that vaping is helping ex-smokers to quit, though in fact I don’t think it’s possible even to conclude that much from a cross-sectional study that didn’t measure whether vaping was a one-off puff or a habit.
While there are some important questions to be asked about how vaping is used by teenagers, I’m afraid this new study does absolutely nothing to help answer them.
Update 1 April:
It seems I’m not the only person in the blogosphere to pick up some of the problems with the way this study has been spun. Here’s a good blogpost from Clive Bates, which as well as making several important points in its own right also contains links to some other interesting comment on the study.