Academic Studies Make E-Cigs Look Bad--But How Accurate Are They?

John Gilhooley
University of California San Francisco recently released two studies published by the Journal of the American Medical Association that have e-cigarette users up in arms and their adversaries wagging fingers saying, "I told you so!" One study claims that e-cigarettes are more likely to make adolescents pick up conventional smoking and the other asserted that e-cigs fail to work as smoking cessation devices.

The first may have more clout due to its large sample size of around 40,000 teens. JAMA found that from 2011 to 2012, when e-cigs began surfacing in the mainstream, the number of middle and high school smokers jumped from 3.1 percent to 6.5 percent. While these percentages are relatively small, the jump is noteworthy.

JAMA's researchers then claimed that teens who vape first are more likely to smoke regular cigarettes once a nicotine addiction is established. They believe that if a teen gets to that point, it's highly likely that the teen will continue to use both e-cigs and conventional cigarettes--resulting in more nicotine use per day.

On paper, this research makes sense. E-cigs are interesting, techie devices and blueberry pancake vapor is quite good. But just because something is appealing doesn't mean that teens overall are more likely to do it. Certain kids in high school just want to be badass and will start smoking no matter what their parents or popular culture says but others, no matter how good a cigarette may taste, are flat-out not interested.

The second study is far less convincing. UCSF surveyed 949 smokers in 2011, 88 of which used e-cigs, to find out how well e-cigs worked as cessation devices. After seven months, the researchers found that 10 percent of vapers quit smoking, and around 13 percent of regular smokers quit. While vaping doesn't appear wildly successful, 3 percent is hardly a big enough difference to close the case.

A New York Daily News article pointed out that the researchers don't know why those 88 people began using e-cigs in the first place, nor do they know for how long. In the article, Dr. Michael Siegel, who was not involved in the study, said JAMA assumed "that the groups are exactly equivalent in terms of their motivations and their levels of addiction." He asserted, "You can't make those assumptions. You're not dealing with comparable groups."

Vaping adversaries would have a better argument if patches helped staggering numbers of smokers quit. But a Reuters article from 2012 examined a study on smoking cessation devices and found that in a group of 7,400 people, 5 percent quit with nothing and 18 percent quit with the patch. They had a sample size almost seven times larger than JAMA and yet only a 8 percent higher success rate. The gap between those who quit with patches and those quit with e-cigs is virtually nonexistent.

Politicians are already citing these two studies in their efforts to try and outlaw e-cigs. Of course, if a smoker truly does not want to quit, then nothing will work. Once that decision is made, however, shouldn't they be free to use their cessation drug of choice?

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