No, vaping isn't a 'gateway'
'Vaping IS a gateway to smoking' cried the Daily Mail earlier this week, reporting on a study from the University of Southern Carolina that found that teenagers who had used ecigs were six times more likely to go on to use tobacco cigarettes, too. The Mail quotes Jessica Barrington-Trimis, the lead author of the study: 'We're concerned that kids who experiment with e-cigarettes may be moving on to other types of tobacco products, like combustible cigarettes, which are arguably a lot more dangerous.'
It could be that kids get so hooked on nicotine after trying ecigs that they go out in search of a stronger or riskier 'hit' from tobacco cigarettes. Much more likely, though, is that the kind of young people who are less concerned with risk and more interested in experimentation will try both ecigs and regular cigarettes. What we can't know is how many teenagers who engage in youthful experimentation go on to use either on a long-term basis.
Many vaping campaigners who have emphasised the health benefits of ecigs will be alarmed by this report. The 'gateway' argument is one routinely dished out by campaigners and politicians as an excuse to regulate ecigs. As the wearying experience of smokers bears out, a half-cocked piece of research given a particular spin by prohibitionists can fix the idea of health harms in the heads of the public and politicians regardless of whether it is good science or not. The overheated claims about passive smoking and even 'third-hand' smoke lingered long after the science was debunked.
The real point is about choice. If ecigs are taken away from young Americans, or they are left with just the very earliest ecig technology - as would be the effect of the FDA's 'deeming' rules, which apply a cut-off date of February 2007 for any 'tobacco product' before it must go through a demanding and hugely expensive regulatory process - then they will skip straight to using tobacco cigarettes. Clamping down on innovation in tobacco products not only deprives smokers of new technologies that may give all the pleasure with a lower health risk, it clumsily sweeps up ecigs into the regulations, too. Vapers become the collateral damage in the war on tobacco.
Such is the stupidity of the overweening regulation of smoking. The freedom to choose how we enjoy nicotine is vital so that we can benefit from innovation. Health arguments simply leave the power to decide in the hands of the authorities. It only takes one half-baked study, disingenuously interpreted, to give those authorities the justification to clamp down on vaping just as much as on tobacco.
Many young people like to use their lifestyle habits to rebel, to look grown up, to show their independence. But many of those teenagers will also want to think about the balance between pleasure, health and risk. By giving the authorities the right to decide what products we can and cannot use, we deny teenagers the possibility of striking that balance for themselves. That's why it's so important to have the widest possible choice and the greatest possible freedom to let consumers decide.