Reality Check: 10 Reasons Vaping Isn’t a Gateway to Smoking

We’ve all heard it.

“These companies get kids hooked on bubblegum-flavored e-cigarettes, and then they end up progressing to smoking!” 

Or, as CDC director Tom Frieden put it: “Many teens who start with e-cigarettes may be condemned to struggling with a lifelong addiction to nicotine and conventional cigarettes.”

 This fear is used to justify placing excessive regulations on vaping products, and is often cited as a reason to limit the availability of the sweet and fruity flavors that adult smokers class as “very important” for helping them quit smoking. Although there are plenty of delicious tobacco flavored e-juices on the market, any attempts to limit the options available to smokers trying to quit will undoubtedly lead to less successful switching and consequently, more smoking. This isn’t something we should take lightly. 

 Thankfully for advocates of vaping, the gateway effect doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s unsupported by evidence, it’s poorly defined and when you get right down to it, the whole idea doesn’t make very much sense at all. Am I being too harsh? I don’t think so. Here are 10 key points that form the nails in the coffin of the gateway hypothesis. 

 

1 – The Gateway Effect is So Poorly Defined it Can’t BScientifically Tested

In Public Health England’s report on e-cigarettes, they dismissed the gateway effect in an almost brutal fashion. They not only pointed out the limitations of the often-cited evidence, they also recommended that the use of the term gateway effect be stopped altogether until it’s actually defined in a scientific and testable way. Without a testable hypothesis, the gateway effect is “not even wrong” – it doesn’t meet the requirements to be definitively called incorrect, much less correct. 

It could be defined – for example, “somebody (who wouldn’t have smoked otherwise) becoming addicted to nicotine through regular vaping and then progressing to regular smoking as a result” – but that would open it up to the possibility of being definitively proven wrong. The people crying “gateway” don’t want that. 

2 – There Isn’t Even Anecdotal Evidence of a Gateway Effect

Ever notice how there is never a story of a youth or adult non-smoker starting vaping regularly and then progressing to regular smoking as a result? All of the people intent on pushing the gateway hypothesis, all of the news sites and all of the anti-nicotine tobacco control types who’d love nothing more to have a clear, definitive demonstration of the elusive “gateway” haven’t been able to come up with a single example of it actually happening. While it could easily have happened, the fact that we don’t even have anecdotal support for the idea means if it really does happen, it’s unlikely to happen very much. At all. 

3 – E-Cigarette Use Rates and Smoking Rates Are Moving in Opposite Directions

This is pretty simple: wherever you see rising rates of vaping, the smoking rate declines, and usually faster than it did before vaping appeared on the scene. If vaping did lead more people to take up smoking, this is definitely not what you’d expect to see. 

As Carl V. Phillips points out in his paper on gateway effectsthough, the falling smoking rates don’t necessarily mean that vaping isn’t a gateway. It could be that vaping is a route away from smoking for a lot of people and a gateway to smoking for a smaller number. Although the smoking rate would decline, there would still be gateway effects hiding beneath the overall trend. However, the falling smoking rate is still a very promising sign. 

4 – When Youth Vaping is Banned, Youth Smoking Rates Don’t Fall As Quickly

Two studies have found that when youth vaping is outlawed in a state, the rate of smoking falls slower than in comparable states without a ban on youth vaping. Since there will probably be more youth vaping in states without a ban, if vaping really did lead teens into smoking, these results would be the other way around. But instead of seeing the smoking rate falling more slowly in states without vaping bans, youth smoking drops more quickly. 

5 – Only a Small Number of Non-Smoking Youth Even Try Vaping

Before the mythical gateway effect gets going – especially if it’s being portrayed as a serious concern – one thing you damn sure need is a lot of non-smoking youth trying out vapingAs it happens, the number of never-smoking teens who try vaping is unimpressively lowAt very least, this means that if the gateway effect does exist, it’s unlikely to be the big public health catastrophe we’re frequently warned about. 

6 – Most Youth Who Try Vaping Don’t Use Nicotine

The 2015 Monitoring the Future survey showed that most youth who try vaping don’t even use nicotineOnly 22 percent of the students who’d vaped said they’d used nicotine. The vast majority who knew what they’d had said they’d vaped “just flavoring.” Only around 1 percent said they vaped because they were “hooked.” Yet again, this flatly contradicts the gateway narrative: youth vapers aren’t addicted, and most aren’t even consuming nicotine. 

7 – Hardly Any Non-Smokers Use E-Cigarettes Regularly

To pile on yet more issues, regular vaping among non-smoking teens or adults is either incredibly low or non-existent. Studies have been unable to even find any regular vapers among non-smoking youth, and even when it is found, it’s incredibly rare – only around 0.2 percent of youth non-smokers regularly vape. The same goes for adult non-smokersAgain, only about 0.2 percent regularly vapewhich is about the same as the number of non-smokers who use nicotine replacement therapy. 

8 – Progressing From Vaping to Smoking Makes Very Little Sense

So the gateway effect is looking increasingly unlikelyand it only gets worse when you think about the logic of progressing from vaping to smoking. Why would you vape rather than smoke for your introduction to nicotine? There are many explanations, but the facts that it’s less harmful and tastes much nicer must be crucialEven if you’re one of the few youth who vaped nicotine, and one of the even smaller number who became addicted, why would you then progress to something more harmful that tastes a lot worse, all for the same substance

If you just wanted a better hit of nicotine, surely you’d just increase your nicotine level, not drastically raise the associated risk and make getting your nicotine more unpleasant all-round? It’d be like progressing from drinking alcohol to drinking hand sanitizer, even though you clearly have a source of ordinary alcohol. It makes no sense. 

9 – The Studies Cited to Support the Gateway Effect Can’t Even Detect It

With all of this in mind, the fact that people even try to argue that it exists is pretty baffling. The only way they can make the claim (and be even slightly credible) is to cite research. The huge problem is that the studies conducted so far aren’t even capable of identifying a gateway effect. 

One of the most common approaches is to simply find out which teens vape and which ones smoke. When you do that, you find a correlation between vaping and smoking – i.e. if a teen does one, he or she is more likely to do the other. This could mean that teen smokers are starting to vape, or that teen vapers are starting to smoke. These studies don’t know which came first, so they are utterly incapable of answering one way or the other. This doesn’t stop the authors from claiming it’s a gateway effect, though.  

More recently, a couple of studies (like this one) have at least found non-smokers who tried vaping first and then went on to try smoking. However, these studies only looked at vaping or smoking at least once, so it’s entirely possible that none of the “gateway” cases even got addicted to nicotine at all. 

10 – The Common Liability Model Makes More Sense Than a Gateway

Finally, a huge problem for gateway effects is that they contradict core principles of the psychology of addiction. The traditional gateway effect claim – progressing from marijuana to harder drugs – is a good example of why. Psychology tells us that people take drugs as a coping mechanism for other problems (depression, for example). So these problems lead people to try marijuana, and then the same underlying issues drive them to take harder drugs when they get the opportunity. It’s using another substance to fill the same hole, not some magical property of pot. This is “common liability.” 

Likewise, the underlying factors that drive people to try smoking and vaping are probably the sameSo if a teen tries vaping and then smoking, leaping to the conclusion that the vaping caused the smoking is almost absurd. If e-cigarettes hadn’t been available, they’d have probably just jumped right to smoking as a result of the same underlying factors

 

Let’s Face Facts: The Gateway Hypothesis is Nonsense

 There is no way to avoid the conclusion. There is no evidence vaping is a gateway to smoking. Population-level evidence shows it probably isn’t happening. Non-smoking teens rarely try vaping, and even less of them progress to regular vapingWhy somebody would go from something that tastes delicious and is not that harmful to something disgusting and that’s a lot more harmful is a mystery. We don’t even have a clear, testable definition of what the gateway effect from vaping to smoking is.  

It’s time to face the facts: the gateway hypothesis is complete and utter nonsense. It’s unavoidably wrong, patently illogical and contrary to everything we know about the psychology of addiction. It isn’t a scientific hypothesis, it’s a hollow tactic used exclusively by those who want to attack vaping but have no better reasons to use. 

2 thoughts on “Reality Check: 10 Reasons Vaping Isn’t a Gateway to Smoking

  1. James Miller says:

    I smoked for close to 40yrs and then tried vaping. I found that I enjoyed vaping more than smoking and smoked my last cig on Oct 21, 2015 and have found I enjoy the fresh air and taste of foods since I quit smoking. I will not go back. I have filled out the support from for I belive the forth time and will do so as often as I find a link for it.

  2. Jason Martindale says:

    Recently I sent a letter to my states representative Congressman Joe Heck. In that letter I told him why he should support HR 2058. I recieved the following letter today. Thank you for contacting me to share your concerns with new rules issued by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate the e-cigarette industry. I share your concerns, which is why I cosponsored H.R. 2058, the FDA Deeming Authority Clarification Act, to prevent this rule from taking effect.

    As you know, the FDA recently issued rules creating new regulatory authority over new tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. I share your concerns with these regulations and how they may affect electronic tobacco production. In recent years, electronic cigarettes have become increasingly popular alternatives to traditional tobacco products, especially for use related to smoking cessation.

    I agree that we must strike a balance between improving market safety and maintaining access to a competitive and growing marketplace. That is why I cosponsored H.R. 2058, the FDA Deeming Authority Clarification Act. This bill will prevent the FDA’s new rules from impacting Nevadans’ access to e-cigarette products by amending the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to change the grandfather date for new tobacco products thereby exempting many e-cigarettes from this unnecessary regulation. H.R. 2058 will remove regulatory burdens and provide for a certain effective date with respect to deemed tobacco products. H.R. 2058 was referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. While I do not serve as a member of this committee, please be assured that I will support H.R. 2058 should it be considered by the full House of Representatives.

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