Doctors Slam Study Linking E-Cigarettes To Teen Smoking

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Guy Bentley Research Associate, Reason Foundation
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A study claiming to show teens who use e-cigarettes are six times more likely to start smoking is being slammed as misleading by doctors and public health experts.

The study followed a sample 300 high school students who had never smoked for one year. Half the group said they had used an e-cigarette, while the other half had never vaped at all. None of the group had ever smoked. After one year, researchers found the e-cigarette users were six times more likely to smoke than those who’d never used e-cigs, according to the study published in the journal Pediatrics Monday.

“These findings suggest that e-cigarette use may promote smoking during the transition to adulthood,” the study concluded. “The increase in e-cigarette use, which may be followed by increases in cigarette use, could result in an erosion of the progress that has been made over the last several decades in tobacco control,” said the study’s lead author Jessica Barrington-Trimis.

But according to leading tobacco experts, the study’s author is dramatically misrepresenting the paper’s conclusions and the research is riddled with holes making its findings questionable at best.

“The authors seem to argue that trying one puff of an e-cigarette caused some young people to try tobacco smoking within the next 16 months,” said Ann McNeill, Professor of Tobacco Addiction at King’s College London.

This is because the study examined teens who said they had tried e-cigarettes, rather than teens who are regular vapers. Theoretically, this could mean that all the 150 teens surveyed who said they had tried an e-cig could’ve taken a single puff.

“If so, we would be seeing large increases in tobacco smoking, but instead we are seeing marked declines in youth tobacco smoking since e-cigarettes came on the market,” McNeill added. “This suggests e-cigarettes are actually helping young people not to smoke tobacco cigarettes (something this study did not even consider).”

Peter Hajek, Director of the Tobacco Dependence Research Unit at Queen Mary University of London, was even more forthright in his criticism of the research.

“The authors misinterpret their findings,” said Hajek. “Like several previous studies of this type, this one just shows that people who try things, try things.”

“To assess whether e-cigarette experimentation by adolescents encourages smoking, one has to examine whether an increase in e-cigarette experimentation is accompanied by an increase in smoking on the population level,” he added. “Such data are available and they show that as e-cigarette experimentation increased, smoking rates in young people have gone down. In fact, the decline in youth smoking over the past few years has been faster than ever before.”

Michael Siegel, Professor at Boston University School of Public Health says there is another problem with the study because of the way it defines smokers.

“The study counted anyone who had even puffed a cigarette as being a smoker,” says Siegel. So, as in the case of e-cigarettes, theoretically, a teen could have had a single puff a cigarette and be considered someone who started smoking because they took up vaping.

“What the study does show, quite convincingly, is that kids who have a personality type that lends itself to experimenting with e-cigarettes are also more likely to experiment with regular cigarettes,” says Siegel.

“There is no surprise here and had the researchers found anything different, one would have to question the validity of the study findings.”

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Guy Bentley