Is it time to start producing after school specials about vaping? A new study published Monday found teens who vape are predominantly motivated by looking cool, and while that may not be the most Earth-shattering finding, it adds to growing concerns about teens vaping.
There's no doubt that vaping is becoming increasingly popular among teens. But what's not so clear is how concerned we need to be over this trend. Are kids who would have smoked choosing e-cigarettes instead, which are widely shown to be less harmful than cigarettes? Or are kids who wouldn't have smoked at all getting drawn in by vaping and eventually going on to smoke real cigarettes?
A survey study published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal went straight to the source to find out more about which kids are vaping and why. Over 2,000 high school freshman from Ontario's Niagara region were surveyed on their smoking and vaping habits. While only 10 percent of respondents said they had tried an e-cigarette—and the majority of those kids, 56 percent, had only tried it once—most of those teens said they tried vaping because it was "cool, fun, or something new."
It also showed that the teens who had tried e-cigarettes were also more likely to have risk factors associated with smoking, like having family members or friends who smoke. So it raises the question: are e-cigarettes a less harmful path for kids that were probably going to smoke anyway or a gateway for kids who might have avoided tobacco if not for a new trendy gadget?
"I don't know if you can necessarily tease that apart," Dr. Michael Khoury, a pediatrician and lead author of the study, told me over the phone. "We just have to be careful. When we see what happens to adolescent cigarette smoking rates in the coming years, that will be a suggestion as to whether or not e-cigarettes have played a role."
Proponents of vaping tend to get testy about studies that suggest teens are vaping more, or that vaping is a gateway to smoking. They're worried that overemphasizing the problem will lead to regulation that will strip away this harm reduction tool from the adults who need it. A study published last week in Nicotine and Tobacco Research projected that e-cigarettes could lead to a 21 percent reduction in smoking-attributable deaths, and another recent survey found an estimated 6.1 million European smokers had quit by switching to vaping.
Khoury said that while there's growing evidence that vaping can be a successful harm reduction tool among adults looking to quit smoking, this survey shows that—at least in this one population of youth—that's not what's motivating teens to vape. And if teens are vaping for other reasons, particularly if they then go on to smoke as some studies have shown, that should be cause for concern.
"I'm not saying it's a fact, but it's a cause for concern and we need to be looking at it within the scope of something that could be useful to adults," Khoury said. "It's not like we're talking about heroin or alcohol or any other drug. We're talking about something that could be potentially useful under the right circumstances as a harm reduction device."
In other words: just because vaping can be a harm reduction tool doesn't mean it's harmless in all scenarios. The best way for vaping to be more widely accepted for the good it does is to reduce the harm it may have, and that means keeping it out of the hands of kids trying to look cool.