Teens Who Use E-Cigarettes More Likely to Take Up Tobacco Smoking, New Survey Stirs Controversy Among Vaping Advocates

Teenagers who vape are six times more likely to start smoking traditional cigarettes than kids who never touch e-cigarettes, according to a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The purpose of the study was to determine whether electronic vaping devices help smokers quit or only encourage a move to tobacco products.

The survey asked 11th and 12th graders around the age of 17 about their use of different vaping products, including e-cigarettes, e-cigars, and electronic hookahs. Of the 300 participants, 146 used e-cigarettes, while 152 never even tried one. No one in the group admitted to smoking traditional cigarettes.

The researchers waited 16 months and again asked the original survey respondents about their smoking habits. The results showed 40 percent of the e-cigarette users were now smoking tobacco products, compared to only 11 percent of the teens who never even touched one.

Teens who normally vape often switch to tobacco within two years.
Teens who vape soon become tobacco smokers, according to new study. [Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]

Study lead author Jessica Barrington-Trimis said the results show a clear connection between teen vaping and tobacco use later on.

“Adolescents who had never smoked, but who had used e-cigarettes, were substantially more likely to begin smoking combustible cigarettes over the next year. 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.”

Even after the data was adjusted for other factors like gender, education level of parents, and ethnicity, the results barely changed. The survey also revealed an amplified tendency for e-cigarette users to try other smoking products like hookahs, pipes, and cigars.

E-cigarettes are small, handheld devices that resemble traditional cigarettes. They vaporize a tobacco-infused, flavored fluid and users are typically called “vapers.”

Some of the teens in the first e-cigarette survey promised not start smoking but were habitual smokers by the time they answered the second survey. The researchers found this to be alarming as it suggests the habit can start even among kids who had no intention of smoking, despite their previous e-cigarette use.

Some experts questioned the survey results. Director of tobacco research with the Wolfson Institute of Preventative Medicine Peter Hajek found the data misleading.

“The authors misinterpret their findings. Like several previous studies of this type, this one just shows that people who try things, try things. In fact, the decline in youth smoking over the past few years has been faster than ever before.”

While Hajek acknowledges that e-cigarette smoking does not prevent someone from trying tobacco cigarettes, the mere experimentation with a vaping product does not necessarily lead to a smoking habit. Barrington-Trimis disagreed by saying current research does not support that position.

Can e-cigarettes help traditional smokers quit?
Some vaping advocates strongly believe e-cigarettes help tobacco smokers kick the habit. [Photo illustration by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images]

Dr. Michael Siegel from the Boston University School of Public Health said the survey really didn’t prove anything. He pointed out that the first survey did not examine how many times the teens used a vaping device.

The questionnaire only asked if the teen used an e-cigarette at least once. Siegel, who advocates the use of e-cigarettes to help tobacco smokers break the habit, noted that the teens who became habitual vapers did not turn into traditional smokers as the survey erroneously suggests.

Thomas Wills, who runs the Cancer Prevention and Control Program at the University of Hawaii, applauded the research. It verifies the notion that increased availability of e-cigarettes to teenagers only stimulates, not prevents, cigarette smoking, he said.

Fearing young brains would be stunted by nicotine exposure from e-cigarettes, the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly pushed for regulation of vaping devices. In response, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration took steps to limit e-cigarettes, including the prohibition of sales to anyone under the age of 18.

The e-cigarette teen study results were published June 13 in the journal Pediatrics. Recent statistics show only 15 percent of the U.S. adult population smoke tobacco cigarettes.

[Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]