Teenage Rampage

Posted 17th December 2014 by Dave Cross
On Tuesday, the University of Michigan published a study under the heading “E-cigarettes surpass tobacco cigarettes among teens”. Media outlets on both sides of the Atlantic seized on the paper’s findings.

Why It’s Bad News That Some Teens Are Choosing E-Cigs Over Real Cigarettes,” screams the headline in the Time magazine article. An article that fails to list any coherent reasons why, even if true, it’s bad news.

E-Cigarettes May Lure Teens into Traditional Smoking,” shouts Live Science, oblivious to the need for balance and corroborating facts.

The full data will not be available until January 2015, when the full study (Monitoring the Future national results on adolescent drug use: Overview of key findings, 2014) will be released. This means that vapers can look forward to a start of the year filled with similar stories.

What do we know?

The number of students surveyed was exactly 40,000 teens. Or maybe 50,000. But we definitely know that 400 schools were studied. About. Fortunately the reported findings are slightly more precise:

  • 9% of 13-14yr olds reported using an ecig in a 30-day period.
  • 4% of 13-14yr olds reported using a cigarette in a 30-day period.
  • 16% of 15-16yr olds reported using an ecig in a 30-day period.
  • 7.2% of 15-16yr olds reported using a cigarette in a 30-day period.
  • 17% of 17-18yr olds reported using an ecig in a 30-day period.
  • 13.6% of 17-18yr olds reported using a cigarette in a 30-day period.

Or do we? The data supplied with the summary combines vaping into the historical data for smokeless tobacco. And here we hit a problem as it contains different figures to reported findings:

  • 9% of 13-14yr olds reported using an ecig in a 30-day period.
  • 3% according to Table 4 of the data.
  • 16% of 15-16yr olds reported using an ecig in a 30-day period.
  • 5.3% according to Table 4 of the data.
  • 17% of 17-18yr olds reported using an ecig in a 30-day period.
  • 8.4% according to Table 4 of the data.

"As one of the newest smoking-type products in recent years, e-cigarettes have made rapid inroads into the lives of American adolescents," said Richard Miech, a senior investigator of the study.

It is curious then why Miech and his team did not create a separate data set for vaping? Also, the choice of headline about vaping rates exceeding that of smoking is odd when the data doesn’t support it – and yet it does demonstrate that smokeless tobacco use has been static for the full fifteen years research has been conducted.

Maybe there will be fuller disclosure with the full study but an indication to which side of the fence the team sit comes from the statement: “Because e-cigarettes are relatively new, a comprehensive assessment of their health impact - especially their long-term consequences - has yet to be developed.”

The success story of a continuing reduction in the take-up of smoking has been blurred with a sideswipe at the potential dangers of vaping. The lack of clarity in the data combined with selective analysis has produced more confusion and false concern rather than lending itself to constructive debate. It leaves articles claiming rates ‘may’ be rising – but the same token they may be falling...but then that doesn’t have the same value to the media, does it.

Top Photo credit: spaceabstract via photopin cc


 Dave Cross
Article by Dave Cross
Freelance writer, physicist, karateka, dog walker