Researchers analyzed data from a 2011 web survey of some 75,000 students in South Korea ages 13 through 18. What they found they argue warns of the addictive nature of electronic cigarettes, but we view the data a bit differently.
One of the names behind the study, Stanton Glantz, might be recognizable to many electronic cigarette issue followers. Glantz represents the University of California, San Francisco and is a common detractor of the devices and often argues that the dangers they “might” pose are enough to treat them as dangerous. He is often spotted on news channels as an opposing force against electronic cigarettes. Often, it even appears that he goes so far as to intentionally misrepresent his own findings to make a point against electronic cigarettes — the he’s smart enough to often tread the line of “technically correct even if misleading.”
You can check out Glantz’s own write up of the results of the survey right here.
Glantz argues that electronic cigarettes are penetrating the youth market and being inappropriately sold as safer alternatives to smoking and as smoking cessation devices. Although this may be the case in South Korea where the rules on what companies can say about their products aren’t they same as in the U.S., the vast majority of electronic cigarette sales are posed as an alternative to smoking and are absent health and therapeutic claims to avoid FDA entanglement.
The study (abstract here) suffers from a couple of common issues with e-cig use surveys today. First, it found a correlation of smoking youth to those also using electronic cigarettes — meaning those that smoke were much more likely to have also tried electronic cigarettes. It also found that those who smoked more and those who had tried to quit smoking were more likely to have tried electronic cigarettes. Students that had once smoked but managed to quit were less likely to have used an electronic cigarette.
Problem 1: Correlation is often used by opponents to argue that electronic cigarettes “could” be a gateway. Research further into the issue is often turning up the opposite — electronic cigarette use generally comes after smoking and appears to reduce the likelihood of smoking initiation. Correlation only really means that those that smoke are more likely to have used electronic cigarettes and those that use electronic cigarettes are more likely to have smoked.
Problem 2: This survey, like many others, considers anyone that responded as having tried or used an electronic cigarette within the 30 days prior to taking the survey to be a “current user.” So someone that uses an electronic cigarette once 28 days ago, but never used one before and never will after is considered a user by this logic. This inflates what look to be numbers of on-going usership. It also means there’s no clear idea of how many individuals started and continued use of electronic cigarettes. It could be everyone that used an e-cig in the last 30 days — or none of them.
Glantz argues that this shows electronic cigarettes to have a dangerous addictive quality — potentially ensnaring kids in a lifetime of smoking. He even goes so far as to suggest that figures might indicate that electronic cigarettes prevent quitting or re-initiate individuals that did manage to quit. There’s more problems with this claim than we can nail down right now (perhaps soon though).
The American market is a separate and distinct animal from that of any other in the world. Applying market data from any country to any other seems likely to fail. But in light of CDC figures failing to scare people as much as opponents had hoped for, perhaps this is the next best thing.