Does vaping provide people, especially young people, with a “gateway” into smoking? Over the last few years, there have been more than a few studies done that have tried to answer that question, and more often than not, researchers have been unable to find a link between vaping and smoking.
Most of these studies have been proven to be flawed or inconclusive, and in some cases, they have shown that there is not a link that exists between the two. But that hasn’t stopped other researchers from trying to test the “gateway” theory that has been used by those who oppose vaping.
The thought is that if there is a link that definitively proves vaping is a “gateway” to smoking, it will do irreparable damage to the entire vaping industry. So it feels like these studies keep coming out every few months.
The latest one, which is called “Flavored Electronic Cigarette Use and Smoking Among Youth,” was published in the journal Pediatrics recently, and it featured researchers using the 2014 National Youth Tobacco Survey to investigate whether or not vaping is actually a “gateway” into smoking.
To do this, researchers attempted to analyze the relationships that exist between flavored e-cigarette use and:
1) the intentions to smoke among those who do not smoke at this time,
2) the intentions to quit smoking among those who do smoke at this time, and
3) the perceptions people from both of those two groups have when it comes to identifying the dangers of smoking.
Their goal was to try and find a correlation between vaping and smoking, if one existed, and in the end, they determined that using flavored e-cigarettes “may increase teens’ taste for smoking.”
Does that sound like a blanket statement to you that could give people the wrong impression of vaping?
You’re not alone! Anti-smoking expert Dr. Michael Siegel, who is a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health in the Department of Community Health Services, wrote a lengthy blog discounting the findings of the study.
And in his blog, he showed, once again, why you shouldn’t always rely on misleading studies that try and portray vaping as a “gateway” to smoking.
What the Study Got Wrong
“Why not just save time and money and jump right to the conclusion that e-cigarettes are a gateway to smoking without the need for actual scientific evidence?”
In his blog, which you can read here, Dr. Siegel doesn’t pull any punches. The title of the blog accuses the America Academy of Pediatrics of misrepresenting the findings of the study and says it “makes one of the cardinal mistakes of causal inference.”
Specifically, Dr. Siegel calls the researchers involved in the study out for pointing out the association between the use of flavored e-cigarettes and a higher susceptibility to smoking without also mentioning that this doesn’t necessarily indicate that e-cigarette use leads to smoking.
In fact, Dr. Siegel points out that those teens who already smoke cigarettes could simply be more likely to also want to try vaping with e-cigarettes. This is, unfortunately, what happens when you do a cross-sectional study like this one that involves trying to find a relationship between two activities. Lines become blurred and it becomes almost impossible to make correlations.
“The direction of this relationship could go either way,” Dr. Siegel wrote in his blog, “from e-cigarettes to an intention to smoke or from an intention to smoke to use of e-cigarettes.”
In this case, the researchers chose to point out the relationship between e-cigarettes and an intention to smoke, but as Dr. Siegel says, the relationship could also work the other way. So there’s no way you can infer that e-cigarette use leads to smoking without considering the other relationship, too.
Why the Study Was Misleading
As Dr. Siegel mentions towards the end of his blog, the study is not the first of its kind. There have been similar studies done in the past that have come to similar conclusions about the relationship between vaping and smoking.
Dr. Siegel calls this particular study “a great example of the widespread bias against e-cigarettes that has taken hold in the tobacco control movement.” In his mind, there are certain groups and researchers that have “chosen sides” in the war on vaping and are committed to try and portray it negatively.
Therefore, they slip their opinions into studies on the subject and masquerade them as scientific evidence when, in reality, they are not necessarily based on facts. Instead, some researchers twist statistics to fit the narrative they are trying to tell.
“This is not science,” Dr. Siegel writes, “it is biased interpretation and presentation of science.”
He is right, too. It does feel as though the researchers involved in this particular study jumped to conclusions rather than presenting all possible connections between vaping and smoking. It is harmful both to the vaping community and to those groups that are trying to conduct legitimate studies on the subject, since it creates a mistrust between researchers and those who want to learn more about vaping.
Why Studies Like This One Will Probably Not Stop
Studies like this one are problematic, but according to Dr. Siegel, there are likely going to be more like it in the future as long as biased researchers try and tell the story they want to tell through their findings.
At the very end of his blog, Dr. Siegel suggests they skip the shenanigans and just come right out and say what they want to say about vaping without even conducting studies. “Why not just save time and money and jump right to the conclusion that e-cigarettes are a gateway to smoking without the need for actual scientific evidence?” he writes. “After all, we’re drawing that conclusion without the presence of scientific evidence anyway.”
The last thing the vaping industry needs right now is another biased study that “proves” that vaping is a “gateway” to smoking. Those studies don’t do anyone any good and end up casting doubt over studies that are conducted under the right circumstances.