It was inevitable really. Eventually, kids were going to start trying out electronic cigarettes. Some would even end up liking them. Even worse, some would be non-smokers that tried the products because they heard the devices were less harmful than conventional cigarettes. Ultimately, the world would have to decide whether protecting young would-be vapers is more important than saving the lives of old smokers.
Initial market surveys found that kids who tired electronic cigarette were overwhelmingly likely to already be smokers. Further looks at the numbers even found that kids unlikely to attempt smoking were also unlikely to attempt vaping (e-cig use). But then, that was before the products really hit the market. Now, police are raising alarms that kids are using e-cigs to consume marijuana, teachers are claiming that because they don’t see e-cigs in the class room that they must be there, and kids are posting videos of themselves using the products.
So the argument the community has largely been putting off is here. But then, there’s not much to the argument when you dig into it.
There’s a few problems with focusing on children as the focal point of anti-electronic cigarette efforts. The first is that despite all efforts to convince people otherwise, electronic cigarettes are not showing themselves to be a gateway to smoking. “Gateway effect” has long been a boogie man in anti-drug efforts. The problem is that a gateway effect can work in many ways — and some of them can be profoundly good. In addition to providing a lower harm outlet for reckless behavior, gateway constituents can also provide an exit from behavior (sometimes more reliably than they provide an entrance).
The CDC announced recently that its tracking of teen tobacco use found a doubling of electronic cigarette trial from 2011 to 2012. Many news outlets, parent groups, and even political figures used these numbers to argue that electronic cigarettes were clearly ensnaring kids. However in the same time tobacco use actually fell. Research also finds that any amount of e-cig use correlates to a reduction in smoking. So while we may be against use of e-cigs be teens, if these products provide that outlet for rebellious behavior without so much of the harm, then by all means, support it. In short, e-cigs could actually be contributing to a reduction in teen smoking rather than reinforcing it — as some would argue.
The reality is that kids are going to use things that they are not meant to use. Teens go on joy rides, drink alcohol, smoke, look at porn, and more. We don’t prevent the sale of cars, alcohol, cigarettes, or porn simply because teens might get a hold of these things. The benefits of an open market tend to outweigh the concerns that reckless teenagers will be reckless teenagers.
Efforts to squash e-cig use among teens need to to weighed against the actual harm of the act. Nicotine — without the smoke — is an addictive substance that can otherwise be used for a lifetime without significant harm to an individual. Addiction itself is a weird thing to argue against. We don’t bat an eyelash at a lifetime of caffeine use because it has benefits and doesn’t cause long-term harm. Nicotine is the same way. When weighing this against the opportunity e-cigs offer smokers to cut the damage caused by the habit by around 99%, it’s hard to claim we should treat the industry the same as smoking.
Will electronic cigarettes potentially introduce teens to a lifetime of nicotine addiction? Quite possibly. Is that any different than what we do with sugar, salt, caffeine, and a laundry list of other constituents designed to make life a little better at the cost of an addiction? No.
Electronic cigarettes are being called the most promising innovation in public health to come along in decades. They offer an escape from smoking addiction while still offering the nicotine that causes it. They may well prove a product capable of replacing cigarettes with a 99% less harmful product from teens and smokers. They may even prove capable of providing the benefits of nicotine with zero long-term side effects.
Is it really worth destroying that opportunity because we don’t want kids using one product that may keep them from using a much worse one?