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E-cigarettes can be a ‘gateway’ to conventional cigarette smoking for teens who had no prior intention to smoke, study finds

November 10, 2020
Cigarette smoking remains a leading preventable cause of morbidity and mortality in the United States. And while adolescent cigarette smoking has declined over the past several decades, e-cigarette use presents a new risk for nicotine use disorder. A new study, published Nov. 9 in the journal Pediatrics, finds that e-cigarette use is associated with a higher risk of cigarette smoking among adolescents who had no prior intention of taking up conventional smoking. These findings have strong implications for practice and policy, researchers say.

“Research is showing us that adolescent e-cigarette users who progress to cigarette smoking are not simply those who would have ended up smoking cigarettes anyway,” says Olusegun Owotomo, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., the study’s lead author and a pediatric resident at Children’s National Hospital. “Our study shows that e-cigarettes can predispose adolescents to cigarette smoking, even when they have no prior intentions to do so.”

In one of the first theory-guided nationally representative studies to identify which adolescent e-cigarette users are at most risk of progressing to cigarette smoking, researchers looked at data of more than 8,000 U.S. adolescents, ages 12-17, who had never smoked. The data was collected by the Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health (PATH) study, an NIH and FDA collaborative nationally representative prospective cohort study of tobacco use, from 2014-2016. Among adolescents who did not intend to smoke cigarettes in the future, those who used e-cigarettes were more than four times more likely to start smoking cigarettes one year later compared to those who did not use e-cigarettes.

E-cigarette use constitutes a relatively new risk factor for nicotine use disorder among U.S. adolescents. A 2019 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 28% of high school students and 11% of middle school students were current e-cigarette users. With the recent emergence of newer and potentially highly addictive e-cigarette products, adolescents who use e-cigarettes are at increased risk of developing nicotine use disorder and progressing to smoke conventional cigarettes.

“Abstinence from e-cigarettes can protect teens from becoming future smokers and should be framed as a smoking prevention strategy by all concerned stakeholders,” says Dr. Owotomo. “Pediatricians are best positioned to educate patients and families on the clinical and psychosocial consequences of e-cigarette use and should support education campaigns and advocacy efforts geared to discourage adolescent e-cigarette use.”


Media contact: Gabrielle Little | 860-818-2345

About Children’s National Hospital

Children’s National Hospital, based in Washington, D.C., celebrates 150 years of pediatric care, research and commitment to community. Volunteers opened the hospital in 1870 with 12 beds for children displaced after the Civil War. Today, 150 years stronger, it is among the nation's top 10 children's hospitals. It is ranked No. 1 for newborn care for the fourth straight year and ranked in all specialties evaluated by U.S. News & World Report. Children’s National is transforming pediatric medicine for all children. In 2020, construction will be complete on the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus, the first in the nation dedicated to pediatric research. Children's National has been designated twice as a Magnet® hospital, demonstrating the highest standards of nursing and patient care delivery. This pediatric academic health system offers expert care through a convenient, community-based primary care network and specialty outpatient centers in the D.C., metropolitan area, including the Maryland and Northern Virginia suburbs. Children’s National is home to the Children’s National Research Institute and Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation and is the nation’s seventh-highest NIH-funded children’s hospital. It is recognized for its expertise and innovation in pediatric care and as a strong voice for children through advocacy at the local, regional and national levels. 

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