As cigarette smoking declines, cannabis rises – but where does vaping fit in?

Do you ever fall asleep with your shoes on and wake up with a headache? A lot of people do – in fact, there’s plenty of evidence that people who go to sleep in their shoes have headaches when they wake. Of course, most headaches aren’t caused by sleeping in shoes, so it must be the other way round, mustn’t it? Falling asleep in your shoes causes headaches.

Er, no. It’s just a hunch, but I suspect some other common factor may be involved in the correlation.

So how about this? Over the past 200 years, the number of pirates sailing the seas has fallen steadily. At the same time, average global temperatures have risen. In fact, if the assumed number of pirates and the observed global warming are considered together, the graphs show a clear relationship: as one goes down the other goes up.

So what we need to combat global warming is more pirates – right?

Well no, obviously. Correlation, as we keep saying (and people everywhere keep forgetting), is not causation.

Nevertheless, it’s beyond tempting to see a meaningful pattern in the figures published recently by the polling firm Gallup showing that US adults (particularly the younger ones) are smoking less tobacco and using more cannabis. So does this mean the rise in cannabis is causing tobacco to fall in popularity, or is it the other way round? Or is it, in fact, more complicated than either of those suggestions?


The e-cig factor


Gallup’s senior editor Jeff Jones is, quite rightly, very careful not to draw any of those conclusions.

“From a purely statistical perspective, there is a correlation because cannabis usage is trending up and cigarette usage trending down among young adults,” he said. “But the correlation here only describes the relationship of the two trends. It doesn’t say anything about whether the wider availability of cannabis, or the appeal of it, is causing young adults to smoke cigarettes less.”

And indeed there is at least one other factor at work here. One which must certainly be taken into account, without leaping to conclusions.

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    According to Gallup’s research, an average of 7% of US adults surveyed between 2019 and 2022 said they had vaped in the previous week, with higher rates – averaging 19% – among those aged between 18 and 29.

    “These data suggest that much of the decline in cigarette smoking among young adults may have been offset by vaping, indicating that young adults are still smoking products containing nicotine, but through different means,” Gallup said.


    It’s a bit more complicated than that


    Note that careful “may have”. In fact, the figures suggest quite clearly that the rise in vaping has indeed “offset” the drop in smoking. What can’t be said with such certainty is which effect is causing which – it could be either or neither. Or, perhaps most likely, a bit of both.

    More likely still is that it’s all a bit more complicated than any simple conclusion you might draw.

    Suggestive as the Gallup figures are, it’s hard to extrapolate from them any sure future direction of travel. Particularly when you bring other novel and future developments into the equation.

    It seems more than likely that at some point soon heated tobacco, nicotine pouches, and maybe some other yet-to-be-launched alternative, will become socially and statistically significant. Will they further speed the decline of smoking or simply replace vaping?

    The one thing we can confidently predict is that it will be both unpredictable and more complex than a shoeless pirate with a headache.

    Aidan Semmens ECigIntelligence staff

    Photo: Dana Tentis

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    Aidan Semmens