CDC: more non-smoking teens are vaping; many plan to smoke

Written by || 26 August, 2014 || Regulatory news analysis |

e-cigs and tobacco cigarettes 300x180New data on vaping habits and smoking intentions among U.S. youth will provide further ammunition for those sceptical on e-cigarettes’ public health benefits.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that over 260,000 students in middle and high schools (i.e. aged around 11 to 18) who had never smoked a combustible cigarette nevertheless used an e-cigarette in 2013 – more than three times as many as in 2011.

That figure is highly likely to be employed by advocates of tighter e-cig regulation as a refutation of common claims that vaping is essentially limited to current or previous smokers.

And other CDC data can be expected to used in support of the “gateway” theory that e-cigarette use leads to tobacco smoking, with the agency reporting that non-smoking youth who have tried e-cigarettes are much more likely to intend smoking combustible cigs than those who have never vaped.

Of those who did not smoke but had used e-cigarettes, 44% said they intended smoking too, against 22% of non-vapers.

About 75% of teen smokers become adult smokers, according to the CDC, meaning that if vaping is indeed a route to smoking at a young age, it is also a route to smoking as adults for many.

“We are very concerned about nicotine use among our youth, regardless of whether it comes from conventional cigarettes, e-cigarettes or other tobacco products.  Not only is nicotine highly addictive, it can harm adolescent brain development,” said Tim McAfee, director of the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health.

The CDC’s findings, which also suggest a strong correlation between smoking and exposure to tobacco advertising, are based on 2011-13 data from the National Youth Tobacco Survey and are published in the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research by a group of scientists from the CDC, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the school of public health at Georgia State University.

Last September, the CDC attracted much attention with data from the 2011-12 youth smoking surveys, showing that both regular and occasional e-cigarette use had roughly doubled among middle and high school students over that year.

What This Means: E-cigs’ defenders will doubtless find much to criticise in the CDC’s data. In particular, it strikes us that defining “not intending to smoke” as “reporting they would definitely not smoke in the next year or if offered a cigarette by a friend”, and classifying “all others…as having positive intention to smoke conventional cigarettes” seems a very sweeping definition of “intention”. “Willingness” might be a more accurate term.

But finding fault with the CDC’s presentation or methodology may not be the important point here. This data comes from a respected source and so it will undoubtedly be used to advantage by those who want greater controls on e-cigs: not only does it seem to reinforce the argument that adoption among young people is increasing, it also appears on the surface to demonstrate that the e-cig-to-tobacco gateway effect is real.

And even if the truth of the matter is that young vapers are more likely to smoke than young non-vapers because the two products appeal to similar tastes, rather than because one activity actually leads to the other in a post hoc ergo propter hoc sense, that will do little to diminish the emotive power of the implication…not least for the FDA, as it works on the final form of its e-cigarette regulations.

– Barnaby Page ECigIntelligence staff