When electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) appeared in the marketplace a few years ago, it caught anti-smoking advocates by surprise.
Cigarette smoking was on the decline. Now there was another product that looked like a cigarette, delivered nicotine, but contained no tobacco. Was it safe? Would it lead to a resurgence of smoking?
Since then, opposition to e-cigarettes among these groups has hardened. The devices are said to deliver harmful chemicals and serve as a gateway to cigarettes, hooking young people on nicotine.
Questioning conventional wisdom
While the health effects of e-cigarettes are still being studied, new research calls into question the contention that they are a gateway to tobacco. Researchers from the University at Buffalo (UB) and University of Michigan flatly assert the evidence isn't there.
“The national trends in vaping and cigarette smoking do not support the argument that vaping is leading to smoking,” said Lynn Kozlowski, the paper’s lead author and a professor at UB.
Kozlowski says that existing research shows that as use of e-cigarettes has increased, overall smoking rates in the U.S. have declined. Kozlowski says the research team looked for the link between e-cigarettes and tobacco but didn't find it.
Questioning previous research
But what about previous studies that contend there is a link? Kozlowski and his colleagues say these studies have flaws. In particular, he says these studies don't clearly define what "smoking" is.
“Measures of ‘at least one puff in the past six months’ can mean little more than the experimenting vaper was curious how cigarettes compared,” Kozlowski said.
Kozlowski says the study only looked at the risks associated with moving from vaping on an e-cigarette to becoming a regular cigarette smoker. Critics of e-cigarettes, meanwhile, have worried that young people are increasingly vaping, and will develop a nicotine dependency that will eventually only be satisfied with tobacco.
Different ideas across the Atlantic
As we noted in 2015, the UK and U.S. have different ideas about e-cigarettes. Public health officials in the UK had just released a report saying e-cigarettes were 95% less harmful than cigarettes.
"My reading of the evidence is that smokers who switch to vaping remove almost all the risks smoking poses to their health," said Professor Peter Hajek of Queen Mary University, a co-author of the report.
The report also concluded there was no evidence that people who used e-cigarettes later took up smoking. Kozlowski says efforts in the U.S. should focus more on product safety.
“The public deserves accurate information on the health risks of e-cigarettes versus cigarettes,” Kozlowski said. “From the best evidence to date, e-cigarettes are much less dangerous than cigarettes. The public has become confused about this.”