A new study is quashing the theory that e-cigarettes or vape pens can discourage young people from taking up smoking.
Despite looking less like conventional cigarettes than first-generation e-cigarettes, researchers have found that watching someone use newer generation e-cigarette vape pens arouses the desire to smoke just as much as watching someone smoke traditional tobacco cigarettes.
The study, which was recently published in Nicotine & Tobacco Research, revealed that young adult smokers who observed the use of conventional cigarettes, first-generation e-cigarettes or second-generation vape pens experienced an immediate, substantial and lasting increase in their desire to smoke.
"The new e-cigarettes, known as vape pens, are now larger and more powerful devices," said study director Andrea King, professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience and director of the clinical addictions research laboratory at the University of Chicago. "They have low resemblance to cigarettes, so some people were hoping they might not produce the same urge to smoke."
"But we found that they do stimulate the urge," she said. "Vape pens look different but they share too many salient features of the act of smoking - including inhalation, exhalation and hand-to-mouth behaviors. This makes them a potent trigger, encouraging people to smoke. Their impact is roughly equal to watching someone light up a cigarette. They made the young adults in our study want to smoke."
Previous studies haven’t been able to confirm that using e-cigarettes and vape pens can contribute to smoking cessation efforts, despite initial hopes around their introduction to the market.
In this latest study, King and colleagues aimed to test the vape pen’s effects on the desire to smoke among men and women aged 18 to 35 - an age group highly susceptible to picking up smoking. A total of 108 volunteers were recruited through online advertisements for a study described as "assessing mood response to commons tasks.”
The recruits ranged from very light to pack-a-day smokers. More than 80 percent of participants had used e-cigarettes and nearly 30 percent had used one in the last month. Throughout the hour-long study session, volunteers interacted with a member of the research team who pretended to be a fellow volunteer "randomly assigned" to use conventional cigarettes or vape pens as study tasks.
The researchers found that observing the use of both products increased desire among research subjects for a cigarette or an e-cigarette, and the duration of that desire was the same no matter their “colleague” was consuming.
"We've made real progress on reducing smoking in our country," King said. "We've done a good job banning indoor smoking. We rarely see two-pack-a-day smokers like we used to. Yet seeing people smoke in public remains common. Our study focused on a classical Pavlovian trigger, as seeing someone smoke is a known potent cue that can induce others to smoke. We did not expect that the vape pen would be as potent a cue as the regular cigarette, but it was as potent."
"The regulations in the U.S. on when and where somebody can use an e-cigarette are not yet standard," she added. "But we do know that, so far, the use of e-cigarettes has not had a major direct impact on smoking cessation efforts above and beyond public health messages and taxes. The sight of someone using a vape pen bumps up the urge to smoke, so this may play a role in dual use of cigarettes and e-cigarettes, but future studies are needed."