Forbes Publishes Rebuttal to Claim That Vaping Leads Teens to Tobacco Use

A recent study published in the Tobacco Control Journal painted a terrible picture of the consequences of vaping. The Hawaiian study alleged that vaping actually puts teens at an increased risk for tobacco use. While alarm bells started sounding around the world, Forbes brought a voice of reason to the situation, courtesy of contributor Jacob Sullum.

In his recent column, Sullum pointed out that the Hawaiian study was actually very misleading. “Smoking among American teenagers has continued to decline, reaching the lowest rate on record last year, as more and more of them experiment with vaping,” Sullum wrote. “These opposite trends seem inconsistent with warnings that the rising popularity of e-cigarettes will encourage consumption of the real thing.”

The real question is whether teen smoking rates would fall even faster if vaping was not part of the equation. The recent study from the University of Hawaii Cancer Center claimed that vaping was directly tied to a higher incidence of teen smoking. So is vaping really the enemy? After surveying 2,300 high school students, the researchers reported that students who had never smoked in 2013 were three times more likely to report tobacco use in 2014 if they had tried vaping at some point in between. Sullum said the problem lies in semantics.

“Although the researchers talk about the ‘onset of smoking,’ the measure they used was whether subjects had tried conventional cigarettes at all,” Sullum explained. “It’s not clear how many of those who (tried a cigarette) will ever be regular cigarette smokers.” Ultimately, the Hawaiian study failed to show a clear cause-and-effect link between vaping and routine tobacco use.

In reality, some teens are just more likely to experiment – both with vapor devices and cigarettes. While the Hawaiian researchers tried to rule out demographic characteristics and rebelliousness as reasons for vaping or smoking, you can’t realistically measure and control these variables or determine how much they are interwoven into the choices that teens make.

Researchers hypothesized that teens were likely to jump from vaping to smoking because the experience is similar. “E-cigarettes mimic the look and feel of cigarettes, and the inhaling and exhaling of e-cigarette aerosol produces some of the same sensory experiences as smoking a cigarette,” the researchers explained. “This similar experience may contribute to an inclination towards trying cigarette smoking.”

The study also hinted that mild nicotine exposure from vaping could lead teens to seek out stronger forms of nicotine with tobacco products in order to experience more powerful physiological effects.

Sullum pointed out that the researchers were using flawed logic here. “Even if it were true that teenagers who smoke tend to vape first, that would not prove vaping causes smoking.” In many ways, this issue is comparable to the old marijuana gateway theory.

Critics have often claimed that smoking pot is a gateway to heroin use. But there are thousands of people who use cannabis that never go near heroin. In reality, those that use both substances are just prone towards substance abuse due to certain characteristics or circumstances. Pot is usually an entry point for those people because it’s easily accessible and affordable. But that doesn’t mean that everyone who tries pot will progress to using heroin. Likewise, eliminating marijuana won’t instantly stop people from using heroin. While the two might be sometimes related, they are not mutually dependent.

This same argument holds true with vaping and tobacco use. Some teens are just more likely to try both because of who they spend time with and what they have access to. But that doesn’t automatically mean that vaping is what caused a teenager to start smoking later. Chances are that the same teen would have started smoking regardless of whether they had tried vaping or not.

Furthermore, data actually shows that vaping has caused teen smoking rates to decline overall. In the Monitoring the Future Study, we can see that the downward trend in teen tobacco use dramatically accelerated after vapor products were introduced in America ten years ago.

Even if vaping is helping teens cut down on smoking, that doesn’t give young people a license to vape. In fact, most vapor advocates want to see laws created to ban the sales of vapor products to minors. However, some researchers are pushing out studies like this one from Hawaii in hopes of restricting advertising or banning flavors that appeal to adults, just to “protect the children”.

Sullum pointed out that this is a disastrous course that we need to avoid. “Rules that make vaping less attractive to current smokers could undermine public health by impeding the replacement of cigarettes by a much less harmful alternative. Worrying about vapers who become smokers while overlooking smokers who become vapers is a recipe for deadly public policy.”

Do you think Sullum got it right? Should regulators create bans that would mostly impact adult smokers all in the name of protecting our kids? How do we effectively keep our children safe while still insuring adult smokers have access to the vapor products they need to avoid tobacco use?

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