Monday 20 April 2015

Did 1 in 20 Irish smokers start out on e-cigarettes?

In my post about the Irish Cancer Society's promotion of Nicorette yesterday, I didn't mention one little factoid that will doubtless be parroted by anti-ecig zealots in the Emerald Isle for years to come, namely...

The study also showed that five per cent of people currently smoking started after using e-cigarettes and the potential for them to become a 'gateway' drug for cigarettes was also highlighted by the ICS as a cause for concern.

The Irish Cancer Society (ICS) provides no link to this mysterious study and it has not been published, so we have no clue as to what this claim is based on, but it sounds highly improbable, to say the least.

Estimates of how many smokers there are in Ireland differ wildly, from 29 per cent according to the EU and OECD to 19.5 per cent according to the Irish health department.  With an adult population of 3.8 million, there are between 730,000 and 1,000,000 smokers. Are we to believe that between 36,000 and 50,000 of them had never tried smoking until they tried an e-cigarette?

It would be amazing if no young people ever experimented with e-cigarettes, but research to date is pretty clear in finding no 'gateway effect'. In the UK last year, ASH said "there is no evidence from our research that e-cigarettes are acting as a gateway into smoking". Office for National Statistics data show that e-cigarettes are used almost exclusively by smokers and ex-smokers, and a study earlier this month also found no evidence of a gateway, with its lead researcher saying:

"There are some concerns at the moment that the growth of e-cigarettes may be helping to get a new generation of young people addicted to nicotine. At the moment, that doesn't seem to be the case. There doesn't seem to be too much reason to worry that that's actually happening."

And yet the ICS, citing some unpublished research, reckon that one in twenty smokers started out using e-cigarettes? It defies belief, particularly when you look at the demographics.

It's well known that the vast majority of smokers had their first cigarette before the age of 20. Since e-cigarettes have only been widely available for the last few years, nearly all the people who supposedly used them as a gateway to smoking must therefore be under the age of 25. That narrows the field considerably, as this graph—from the Irish Health Executive—shows:

If, as this graph says, 15 per cent of Irish smokers are under the age of 25, about a third of them (5 per cent) must have been vapers first if the ICS claim is true. I can't prove that this is a lie, but it sounds very much like one. There just aren't enough non-smoking vapers to make it credible. The ICS's own briefing paper on e-cigarettes says:

...there are approximately 134,000 e-cigarette users in Ireland. The vast majority of these are either current tobacco smokers or former tobacco smokers and there is little evidence that the devices are used by people who have never smoked tobacco.

This is borne out by a graph that the percentage of Irish non-smokers who are current users of e-cigarettes is, er, zero.

To be fair, use by non-smokers is not totally non-existent. Four per cent of them have 'tried once or twice'—a quick puff here or there perhaps—and one per cent had 'used in the past', but none of them are vapers in the sense of being regular users. How can e-cigarettes be a gateway when non-smokers aren't interested in them in the first place? What is supposed to be the narrative here? Do non-smokers try e-cigarettes 'once or twice' and then immediately abandon them and start smoking instead? They'd have to do so in massive numbers if the claim that five per cent of the country's entire smoking population—most of whom are over the age of 35, let alone 25—started out with them were true.

As I say, I can't categorically prove that this is a lie, but the fact that non-smokers hardly ever try e-cigarettes, that almost none of them start using e-cigarettes regularly, and that research from the rest of the world has found no evidence of a gateway effect makes it very hard to believe that tens of thousands of Irish people are so keen on vaping that they decide to take the much more expensive and unhealthy decision to start smoking tobacco. The five per cent claim reeks of BS, but that won't stop it being trotted out until the twelfth of never.

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