Are e-cigarettes the problem or the solution?

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Matthew Mo

A student vapes in an apartment complex near the North Quad on Aug. 31.

By Yutong Zhao, Columnist

The recent outbreak of illness linked to e-cigarettes has again brought the health effects of the products under scrutiny. E-cigarette marketing promises the products have less tar and other toxins compared to traditional cigarettes, but they still contain nicotine. While the actual health effects of vaping remain uncertain, a growing number of young adults are beginning to choose vaping as an alternative for smoking out of concern for their health and for their wallets. This raises the question: Is vaping a panacea for tobacco addiction, or is it a gateway drug introducing young people to smoking?

One of the most influential incentives for vaping is the cost. A cost analysis of the price of nicotine by the milligram reveals vaping is cheaper. One milligram of nicotine in vaping cartridges costs only about 10 cents, while the nicotine in cigarettes costs 15.7 cents per milligram. Although vaping includes fixed costs, such as the purchase of vaping starter kits, it doesn’t take long for smokers to recoup the investment. It only takes an estimated 51.6 days before the cost for the e-cigarette user drops below that of traditional smokers, who consume an average of 12 cigarettes per day.

This makes it especially attractive to young adults who are either still dependent on their parents or just starting to earn their own paychecks. But for adults, the incentive is weaker. According to the 2016 National Health Interview Survey, only about 2.8% of adults aged 45-66 use e-cigarettes compared to 4.7% among young adults between 18-24, the highest among all age groups. When considering the growth rate, the users in the 18-24 range increased by about 1.8% while the 44-65 group has only increased by about 0.8%. 

So is vaping a viable replacement? Probably not. It is reasonable to infer vaping is not a substitute for combustible cigarettes. For one thing, most adults earning a stable income have no incentive to make the switch, as confirmed by the data. Most smokers started to smoke during their young adult years, and by the time e-cigarettes were introduced, economic saving is just not enough to call for the switch. 

Admittedly, better health and enhanced quality of life should be taken into consideration in this cost-benefit analysis. Using e-cigarettes as a tool to transition from traditional smoking might help kick the habit for good. But there’s just simply not enough empirical research to confirm this claim. Instead, there’s a common trend of dual-use: A 2015 study suggests that 58.9% of e-cigarette users also smoke traditional cigarettes. Among young adults, that number is 40%. Such a considerable proportion of dual-users throws doubt on the claim that e-cigarettes can be a viable replacement for combustible ones.

Since vaping doesn’t actually help the smoker quit smoking, can it be a gateway drug for young adults to smoke actual cigarettes? I think this possibility is highly likely. First, let’s look at the numbers. According to the same survey mentioned above, of the new young adult users of e-cigarettes, 40% of them reported never smoking before. The National Youth Tobacco Survey also found e-cigarette use among high school pupils increased by 78% between 2017 and 2018. 

These statistics make a lot of sense, considering e-cigarettes easily attract young users by their design and marketing strategy. Many of these products are manufactured to look sleek and attractive, and the flavored cartridges are often the primary reason young people are attracted to them. Moreover, since they’re technically not cigarettes, they are much more accessible to the youth. Young people who develop the habit of smoking during their early years can continue as they grow and might easily switch to combustible cigarettes later on.

More concrete empirical evidence affirms the causal link between e-cigarette smokers and future cigarette use. Research published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics concludes “e-cigarette use was associated with future cigarette use across 3 longitudinal waves, yet cigarette use was not associated with future e-cigarette use.” 

It is obvious “soft quitting” by using e-cigarettes is not an effective way to cut a smoking habit. Based on the studies above, it doesn’t provide enough of an incentive for the majority of older adults to switch to a less toxic alternative, and at the same time, it attracts more young people to smoking culture. Overall, it does more harm than good.

Yutong is a senior in LAS. 

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