Adolescents who try e-cigarettes might be more likely to try conventional cigarettes, suggests a new study.
But it isn’t possible to conclude from the small study that using e-cigarettes directly causes teens to take up smoking tobacco.
Professor Linda Bauld, a Cancer Research UK-funded expert in tobacco policy at the University of Stirling, said that the study simply shows that some teenagers who try an e-cigarette might go on to try tobacco, and on both occasions it could be just once.
“If e-cigarettes were causing smoking, then the steady decline in youth smoking we’ve seen in national surveys in recent years would be reversed,” she said. “But it’s not – smoking amongst young people in the UK is at an all-time low.”
The study, published in the journal Tobacco Control, surveyed 2,836 children aged 13-14. The students from 20 UK schools were asked about their smoking habits, and then again 1 year later.
When first asked, around a third of students had ever tried e-cigarettes, and almost half of those had never smoked.
When asked 1 year later, those who had tried e-cigarettes were around 4 times as likely to have tried smoking than those who never vaped – 34% of pupils compared to 9%.
Of all the students who had tried smoking when asked 1 year later, slightly more than half hadn’t previously tried an e-cigarette.
“Which came first – and why – might simply be a matter of chance, rather than anything else,” said Bauld.
The study covered a short period of time, and so can’t say what happened to the students’ smoking and vaping habits, and whether or not they became regular smokers.
And as students self-reported their use, it’s possible that some may not have given accurate answers.
The study’s lead author, Professor Mark Conner from the University of Leeds, said: “It is impossible to say if these young people were just experimenting with cigarettes or were becoming more regular smokers.”
This kind of research is known as an observational study, which means that it isn’t possible to prove that one thing causes another – in this case vaping leading to smoking. For instance those who tried smoking over the year may have done so regardless of e-cigarette availability.
Official statistics show that e-cigarette usage is increasing while tobacco cigarette usage is decreasing among young people in the UK.
“With e-cigarette use being such a recent phenomenon further long term studies are required to determine if e-cigarette use really causes an increase in smoking in adolescents,” said Connor.
E-cigarettes are widely considered to be a safer alternative to smoking. But as a relatively new technology, no long-term studies have been carried out to accurately assess the effects on health.
Carl Alexander, Cancer Research UK’s health information officer, said: “Tobacco is the biggest preventable cause of death in the world, and the evidence so far shows that e-cigarettes are much safer than smoking and people are using them to give up tobacco.”
It’s illegal to sell cigarettes or e-cigarettes to anyone under 18 in the UK.