Public health experts fear electronic cigarettes -- with their colorful designs and array of sweet flavorings -- will induce young people to start smoking. But are those fears justified? A new study from Wales offers mixed results.
Researchers found that 5.8% of pre-teens surveyed said they had used e-cigarettes, and nearly two-thirds of them had tried the battery-powered devices only once. By comparison, fewer than 2% of the 10- and 11-year-olds in the same survey had tried regular cigarettes, with about half of them describing themselves as current smokers, according to a report published Wednesday in the journal BMJ Open.
Although the overwhelming majority of kids in this age group had never smoked anything, there was a concerning overlap among kids who had tried electronic and traditional cigarettes. For instance, compared with those who had never smoked traditional cigarettes, those who had were 16 times more likely to have tried e-cigarettes as well. Likewise, the small number of kids who were current smokers were 17 times more likely than their non-smoking counterparts to have used e-cigarettes too.
Both types of smoking were more popular among an older group of students between the ages of 11 and 16. In this group, 12.3% had tried electronic cigarettes and 1.5% used them at least once a month. In addition, 12.1% had used regular cigarettes, including the 5.4% who were current smokers.
Once again, researchers found a link between use of electronic and tobacco cigarettes. Four out of five of those who used e-cigarettes regularly had also tried traditional cigarettes. And compared to nonsmokers, current tobacco smokers were more than 100 times more likely to smoke e-cigarettes as well.
Still, even in this older age group, 43.2% of kids and teens who described themselves as regular users of e-cigarettes said they were not current tobacco smokers. And among the kids and teens who had used e-cigarettes just "a few times," 72.1% were not current tobacco smokers.
The study was based on data from two different surveys -- one involving 1,601 primary school students who were 10 or 11 years old and another that included 9,055 secondary school students between the ages of 11 and 16.
When all the data was put together, a pattern emerged: Electronic cigarettes were more popular than traditional cigarettes up through the ages of 15 and 16, when the kids were in school-year 11. After that, tobacco smoking became more common.
In school-years 6, 7 and 8 -- when kids were between the ages of 10 and 13 -- the majority of those who had tried e-cigarettes had not tried tobacco. School-year 9 (ages 13 and 14) was the tipping point, with half of those who had used e-cigarettes at least once saying they had also used traditional cigarettes at least once. Among older teens, the majority of those who had used e-cigarettes had also used tobacco.
One thing seemed quite clear from the data: Teens were not using e-cigarettes to help them kick their tobacco habit. The fact that current smokers were just as likely to use e-cigarettes as were people who had smoked just a few times "indicates that young people are not adopting e-cigarettes as an effective means of quitting tobacco," the researchers wrote.