Study Suggests Electronic Cigarettes Are Not Gateway

Widespread European study shows just 1.1% of non-smokers have tried e-cigarettes

Melissa Vonder Haar, Freelance Writer

Constantine Vardavas

Constantine Vardavas

BOSTON -- Although many anti-tobacco groups and local governments have advocated for strict regulations on the electronic cigarette industry on the basis that the new segment may serve as a pathway to nicotine use by non-smokers (especially young non-smokers), a study recently published in Tobacco Control shows this is not the case.

Analyzing a 2012 survey of 26,500 consumers across 27 European countries, Constantine Vardavas and his colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health found the highest concentrations of vapers came from younger consumers who are heavy smokers but interested in quitting. Although e-cigarette use was highest in smokers between the ages of 15 and 24, the evidence suggested electronic cigarettes are not enticing non-smokers, young or old: of those surveyed, 20% of current smokers had tried an e-cigarette at least once, while just 4% of ex-smokers and 1.1% on non-smokers had ever sampled the segment.

“This study verifies that e-cigarette use does not renormalize smoking,” Konstantinos Farsalinos, who was not involved in the study but serves as a cardiologist at the Onassis Cardiac Surgery Center in Athens, Greece, told New Scientist. “The results show minimal adoption by non-smokers.”

The findings come in stark contrast to recent claims made by University of California San Francisco researcher Stanton Glantz: in a study released in March 2014, Glantz found that middle and high school students who had tried electronic cigarettes were more likely to also be heavy smokers.  Although the UCSF study did not track how many of those students were heavy smokers before trying electronic cigarettes, it has been used by Glantz and many others as evidence of the “gateway” claim.

The Harvard School of Public Health analyses, however, suggests that electronic cigarettes may actually serve as a gateway to cessation, with smokers who had attempted to quit in the last 12 months being twice as likely to have tried e-cigarettes than other smokers.

Lead researcher Vardavas admitted that there are both positives and negatives in the findings, especially when it comes to the popularity of electronic cigarettes with younger smokers.

"On one hand, e-cigarettes could be helping young people to quit,” he said. “On the other, maintained nicotine addiction at a population level may significantly hinder tobacco endgame efforts.”