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Study Claiming Teen E-Cigarette Use Leads To Smoking ‘Not Supported’ By Evidence

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Guy Bentley Research Associate, Reason Foundation
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A study claiming teens who use e-cigarettes are almost three times more likely to pick-up smoking is under fire for making claims that are unsupported by the study’s own evidence.

The research published in the journal Tobacco Control claimed teens who use e-cigarettes were more likely to try tobacco cigarettes a year later, than their peers who had never vaped.

“This suggests that e-cigarette use among adolescents is not without behavioural costs,” said the research team in the January study.”These findings should be considered for policy discussions about the availability of e-cigarettes to adolescents.”

The teens examined in the report were ninth and tenth graders from Hawaii and, on average, under 15 years old.

Almost a third of those studied — 31 percent — had used e-cigarettes by 2013, and this figure climbed to 38 percent by 2014. “15 percent smoked, at least, one cigarette in 2013, rising to around one in five (21 percent) by the following year,” said the study’s press release.

The media’s reaction has been fierce, with headlines claiming “Teen vaping leads to smoking.” These conclusions are wildly premature given the study’s own press release that said “this is an observational study, so no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect.”

Linda Bauld — professor of health policy at the University of Stirling, deputy director of UK Center for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies and chair in behavioral research for cancer prevention at Cancer Research UK — took to Science Media Center (SMC) to criticize the suggestion that e-cigarette use is a gateway to smoking.

“If you look more closely at the paper any assumptions that one leads to the other are not supported, as is the case with previous studies,” she said.

“In particular in this paper, more frequent use (compared to experimentation) of both e-cigarettes and tobacco at baseline and follow-up was low and did not significantly increase – around eight percent for e-cigarettes and four percent for tobacco at both time points.”

Bauld’s statement is clear, with her adding “this study does not provide evidence that e-cigarettes are a gateway to regular smoking in teenagers. It is important that ongoing research on this topic is conducted, including in the UK, where e-cigarette age of sale laws already exist and significant marketing restrictions will be introduced from May this year.”

Established in 2002, SMC’s philosophy is “the media will DO science better when scientists DO the media better.”

SMC also pointed out several limitations to the study that should give media outlets and campaigners pause when making claims about the “gateway” effects of vaping.

“The study didn’t ask about other potential confounders – e.g. parents’ smoking habits or parents’ attitudes to smoking,” according to SMC.

“The authors noted that the measure of e-cig use was relatively simple – i.e. their own definition of ‘use’ goes from ever tried an e-cig to using one every day.”

The research authors also freely admitted that there was some error in their data. “Some children who were ‘users’ of e-cigs from time one (2013) defined themselves as ‘never used’ in time two (2014) although exact numbers of these errors aren’t reported in the paper.”

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