Skepticism

Why E-Cigarettes are NOT a Gateway to Cannabis

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Transcript:

This week I read a truly incredible Washington Post headline: Study: Kids who vape tobacco are more likely to go on to use cannabis. That headline inspired two thoughts to pop into my head at nearly the exact same time: 

1) literally no kids are vaping tobacco

And

2) if they are, and then they move on to cannabis, that’s…good? That’s a good thing.

Let’s get into it.

First of all, yeah, that headline is embarrassing. People do not vape tobacco: they smoke tobacco and vape nicotine. “Tobacco” is the substance in cigarettes and cigars, which contain  thousands of chemicals, including very harmful, carcinogenic things like formaldehyde and hydrogen cyanide. They also contain nicotine, which is the extremely addictive drug that lifts your mood, makes you poop, fucks up your heart, and wears off quickly making you want another cigarette within a few hours of the first, if not sooner.

You *can* vape tobacco if you really want: you can drop a few hundred dollars on a vaporizer that will turn any dry vegetation into a mist that you can breathe into your lungs. But no one is doing that with tobacco because it will taste like absolute shit and still put all those harmful chemicals into your body. Instead, if you want the happy-making poop drug, it makes more sense to drop $10 on a little cartridge that just contains the nicotine, and maybe a few bonus chemicals that make it taste interesting.

I will pause here to point out that this isn’t the first time I’ve discussed nicotine vaping. Last year I talked about Juul (the behemoth vape company that’s owned in part by the same company that sells us Marlboro cigarettes) who bought an entire science journal to publish a bunch of bullshit about how great vaping is. You should go watch that video to get a good idea of how completely sociopathic this industry is, but just know that while vaping nicotine IS surely less dangerous than smoking cigarettes, it’s still bad for you and Juul has marketed their vapes to children via Nickelodeon and Seventeen Magazine and Cartoon Network.

So, while kids are NOT vaping “tobacco” as this idiotic headline states, kids ARE vaping nicotine that is being advertised to them, and that is super not good.

If we fix the bad headline, that means a study shows that “Kids who vape (nicotine) are more likely to go on to use cannabis.” The assumption here is that nicotine vapes are a gateway to cannabis, and the Washington Post reporter even spells it out in the opening: “Vaping is growing more prevalent among young people — in 2021, 1 in 9 high school students said they had vaped in the past month, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Increasingly, those kids are vaping cannabis. But is vaping a gateway to marijuana use?

A new study suggests that is the case…”

No! No, it doesn’t suggest that at all. But briefly let me say that if it was true, and if the kids in question are SWITCHING from nicotine to cannabis, that is a GOOD THING. Let me be clear: kids should not be using cannabis. It is probably not good for their still-developing brains. But from a harm reduction standpoint, cannabis is probably better for them than nicotine.

However! It’s actually NOT true that this study shows that nicotine vapes are encouraging kids to use cannabis. And I know that because unlike the people at the Washington Post who wrote this headline and article, I actually read the study.

Use of Electronic Cigarettes Among Cannabis-Naive Adolescents and Its Association With Future Cannabis Use” was published last month in the American Medical Association’s monthly open access journal. The researchers looked at an existing database of about 10,000 American adolescents (aged 12 to 17 years of age) who, at the start of the survey in 2017, had never tried cannabis but some of whom had tried vaping nicotine. A year or two later this same group was surveyed again, and the researchers noted how many had now tried cannabis, specifically looking to see if there was a difference between those who had already tried vaping.

900 kids in the second survey HAD now tried cannabis in the year since the first survey, about 10% of all the kids. Those who had previously tried vaping nicotine (less than 8% of the initial group) were about three times as likely to be in that 10%.

So! Does that mean vaping increases the chances a kid will try cannabis? No. In fact, this same study authors state very clearly that this isn’t happening: “despite this association,

e-cigarette use seems to have had a minimal association with the overall prevalence of youth

cannabis use. At the population level, adolescent use of cannabis has remained relatively stable for the past quarter century.”

In that second wave of surveys, only 244 kids had ever used e-cigs and then went on to use cannabis. But 365 had used alcohol in the past year and went on to use cannabis. 612 had c-grades or lower in school. And the kids who were more likely to try both e-cigs and cannabis also scored higher on “sensation seeking,” which was the “mean response to 3 questions, which asked about respondents’ affinity for frightening things, new and exciting experiences, and exciting and unpredictable friends.” The study authors admit that even after controlling for sensation seeking, it’s likely that “e-cigarette use may be a marker for other risk-taking behaviors that are also associated with cannabis use.”

So if the takeaway from this study is NOT “e-cigarettes are a gateway to more kids using cannabis,” what IS the takeaway? Simple: Big Tobacco companies like Juul have successfully marketed their products to “bad” kids. Kids who are more likely to drink, smoke weed, and get bad grades are now ALSO more likely to vape highly addictive nicotine pods. The same number of kids used cannabis in 2019 as in 1995, but fewer kids are smoking cigarettes, which led the tobacco industry to strike back with vapes. In fact, the exact same team of researchers published an article last year in the exact same journal, JAMA Open Access, point this out:

“In 2020, 1.6% of middle school students and 4.6% of high school students reported use of cigarettes in the past 30 days, compared with 12.8% of middle school students and 34.8% of high school students in 1999. In contrast, the popularity of e-cigarettes has increased markedly among adolescents in recent years. Since 2014, e-cigarettes have become the most commonly used nicotine or tobacco product among middle school and high school students. From 2017 to 2018, current use of e-cigarettes, defined as having vaped in the past 30 days, increased from 11.7% to 20.8% among high school students and from 3.3% to 4.9% among middle school students. The rates grew even higher in 2019, at 27.5% among high school students and 10.5% among middle school students.”

In 2020, stricter laws stopping companies like Juul from marketing their e-cigs to children seemed to start to have an effect, and their use has begun to drop. Which is good! I think more people need to realize how absolutely sociopathic these companies are, but not by relying upon outdated anti-cannabis fear-mongering. Yes, kids who experiment with drugs are going to experiment with whatever drugs they can get, and especially drugs that are directly marketed to them. So let’s stop doing that maybe?

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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