Skip to content


You're viewing the new version of our site. Please leave us feedback.

Learn more
Open Access

E-cigarette use and relations to tobacco and alcohol use among adolescents

BMC Medicine201513:103

Received: 17 March 2015

Accepted: 31 March 2015

Published: 30 April 2015


Electronic cigarette (EC) use is currently subject to a debate concerning safety, regulation need, and probable contribution to smoking cessation. An important gap in this debate is the lack of distinction between minors and adults. This is problematic because other principles of prevention apply to long-term users (such as most adult smokers) and experimental or probable users (more common in minors). This commentary focuses on two less discussed aspects of the EC debate: 1) whether EC use is likely to be additive to conventional cigarette and other tobacco use among minors, and 2) if EC use is likely to contribute to an overall increase in alcohol consumption and other drug use among minors. We find the results by Hughes et al. and others indeed suggestive of both. We conclude that EC use is likely to be additive to other tobacco use and increase the risk for alcohol use, therefore serving as another potential route to hazard for even mildly risk-prone minors. Policies to restrict the access and use of EC among minors are encouraged.

Please see related article:


AdolescentsAlcohol useDelinquencyE-cigarettesElectronic cigarettesSmokingVapors


Tobacco, alcohol, and other substance use should be discouraged in minors. This view has close to universal recognition. Among recent trends in the area of smoking are the so called electronic cigarettes (ECs), which have largely been marketed as a safer alternative to conventional cigarette (CC) smoking [1,2], often with emphasis on young consumers [3]. EC use is currently subject to a heated debate concerning safety, regulation need, and probable contribution to smoking cessation [4-7]. Although much evidence has yet to be revealed with regards to the harm of e-cigarette use, it is not debated, from a purely toxicological point of view, that they are safer than combustible tobacco [5,8]. However, an important gap in this debate is the lack of distinction between minors and adults. This is problematic because other principles of prevention apply to long-term users (such as most adult smokers) and experimental or probable users (more common in minors) [9]. Taking account of this problem, this commentary focuses on two less discussed aspects of the EC debate: 1) whether EC use is likely to be additive to CC and other tobacco use among minors, and 2) if EC use is likely to contribute to an overall increase in alcohol consumption and other drug use among minors.

Is EC use likely to be additive to CC and other tobacco use among minors?

Advocates for the public health impact of ECs mainly build their argument on the notion of smoking cessation, namely that ECs are less harmful to the user than combustible tobacco and may therefore make a suitable alternative for those who have repeatedly but unsuccessfully attempted to quit smoking [4]. This assertion rests on the pillars of tertiary prevention and the concept of harm reduction [10]. That is, helping those who already are heavy smokers curb their use and/or minimize harm. However, this viewpoint does rarely apply in the case of minors where primary prevention approaches are more appropriate. A critical question in this respect is whether EC use is additive to CC and other tobacco use among minors, therefore potentially serving to increase the overall prevalence of tobacco use in the population. Some of the findings by Hughes et al. [11] are undeniably suggestive of this. For example, 4.9% of all participants that had never smoked CCs had accessed ECs, which sums to be almost 16% of those that had accessed ECs. Additionally, 22.6% of those who had “tried CC but didn’t like it” had accessed ECs. Evidence from elsewhere are reminiscent of similar trends. Recent US-based studies show a substantial increase in lifetime EC use among minors in grades 6 to 12 during the last 2 to 3 years [12,13]. A study among 15- to 19-year-old adolescents in Poland showed an increase in lifetime EC use of 5.5% to almost 30% between 2011 and 2014 [14]. Further, new unpublished data from Iceland collected among 10th grade students in February 2015, shows that 17.1% of students had tried ECs in their lifetime and 9.3% of those who had never used CCs had tried ECs. Another US-based study specifically examined alternate tobacco use in EC, CC, and non-users, and found that EC-only users were significantly more likely to use blunts and hookah than CC-only users [15]. Together, these findings strongly indicate that the presence of ECs serves to increase the overall rate of minors engaging in tobacco use (of any kind) and, therefore, that ECs are additive to the overall tobacco prevalence in the population among minors.

Is EC use likely to increase the risk of alcohol consumption and other drug use among minors?

For several decades one of the most influential theories of primary prevention has been the “gateway hypothesis”. The central claim of the gateway hypothesis is that substance use and abuse can be lined up in a consequential trajectory of potential harm [16,17]. It further states that early initiation of CC use is likely to increase the risk of alcohol use, particularly among minors, and may then lead to increased risks of cannabis experimentation and use, which can lead to stronger substances [18,19]. This hypothetical sequence of substance use risk is especially important in minors because we know that for every year delayed in initiation of use the risk of consistent use and associated social developmental problems is substantially decreased [20-23]. This is the central assertion of primary substance use prevention. With regards to ECs, the critical question becomes what role, if any, EC use is likely to play in this hypothetical sequence, therefore potentially increasing the risk of overall alcohol use and other substance use among minors in the population? Some of the findings by Hughes et al. [11] do indeed point in this direction. For example, over 9% of non-drinkers had accessed ECs, and despite statistically controlling for smoking behaviors, regular alcohol users and binge drinkers were significantly more likely to have accessed ECs. Findings from other studies show similar results. A US-based study among young adolescents showed that EC users were significantly more likely than non-users to use both CC and alcohol [24]. Another study, conducted in 2013 in Hawaii, showed that EC-only users (as opposed to CC only or dual users) where significantly worse off on traditional risk and protective factors of primary prevention (e.g., parental support, academic involvement, peer smoking, etc.) than non-users but better off compared to dual or CC-only users [13]. The authors concluded that, with regards to risk and protective factors for substance use development, EC-only users fall in between non-users and CC/dual users as an intermediate group [13]. The new and unpublished data from 10th grade students in Iceland mentioned earlier shows the exact same pattern: when non-users, CC-only, EC-only, and dual users are cross-tabulated on lifetime alcohol use and drunkenness, the prevalence of use by EC-only users falls in between non-users (lowest prevalence), CC-only users (second highest category), and dual users (highest prevalence). Together, the findings by Hughes et al. [11] and the latest research in the area therefore suggests that EC use among minors may serve to intensify the risk of other substance use, such as alcohol use, which in turn is likely to escalate into other substance use.


Decades of prevention efforts have informed our children that smoking and other tobacco use is harmful for one’s health – this is essentially common sense in today’s Western world. However, it is not the case with ECs, which is likely to confuse minors about what is tolerable for their physical health and social development. Recent studies have shown that non-cigarette smoking and cigarette smoking minors believe ECs to be less harmful than CCs [3,25]. This will, without a doubt, serve to increase the odds of non-cigarette smoking minors engaging in EC use although they might never have considered using CCs. The current evidence of EC use by never, previous, and current smokers among minors suggests that EC use is additive to other tobacco use and increases the risk for alcohol use, therefore serving as yet another route to potential hazard for even mildly risk-prone minors. Preventive efforts at multiple levels to restrict the access and use of ECs among minors are therefore encouraged.



Conventional cigarettes


Electronic cigarettes


Authors’ Affiliations

Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, School of Public Health, West Virginia University
Icelandic Center for Social Research and Analysis, Reykjavik University
Department of Psychology, Reykjavik University
Department of Health and Behavior Studies, Teachers College, Columbia University


  1. Kornfield R, Huang J, Vera L, Emery SL. Rapidly increasing promotional expenditures for e-cigarettes. Tobacco Control. 2015;24:110–1.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Pokhrel P, Fagan P, Kehl L, Herzog TA. Receptivity to e-cigarette marketing, harm perceptions, and e-cigarette use. Am J Health Behav. 2015;39:121–31.View ArticlePubMedPubMed CentralGoogle Scholar
  3. Ambrose BK, Rostron BL, Johnson SE, Portnoy DB, Apelberg BJ, Kaufman AR, et al. Perceptions of the relative harm of cigarettes and e-cigarettes among U.S. youth. Am J Prev Med. 2014;47:S53–60.View ArticlePubMedPubMed CentralGoogle Scholar
  4. Hajek P. Electronic cigarettes have a potential for huge public health benefit. BMC Medicine. 2014;12:225.View ArticlePubMedPubMed CentralGoogle Scholar
  5. Hajek P, Etter J, Benowitz N, Eissenberg T, McRobbie H. Electronic cigarettes: review of use, content, safety, effects on smokers and potential for harm and benefit. Addiction. 2014;109:1801–10.View ArticlePubMedPubMed CentralGoogle Scholar
  6. Pisinger C, Dossing M. A systematic review of health effects of electronic cigarettes. Prev Med. 2014;69:248–60.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Pisinger C. Why public health people are more worried than excited over e-cigarettes. BMC Medicine. 2014;12:226.View ArticlePubMedPubMed CentralGoogle Scholar
  8. Oh AY, Kacker A. Do electronic cigarettes impact a lower potential disease burden than conventional tobacco cigarettes? Review on e-cigarette vapor versus tobacco smoke. Laryngoscope. 2014;12:2702–6.View ArticleGoogle Scholar
  9. Chapman SLC, Wu L. E-cigarette prevalence and correlates of use among adolescents versus adults: a review and comparison. J Psychiatr Res. 2014;54:43–54.View ArticlePubMed CentralGoogle Scholar
  10. Maziak W. Harm reduction at the crossroads. The case of e-cigarettes. Am J Prev Med. 2014;47:505–7.View ArticlePubMedPubMed CentralGoogle Scholar
  11. Hughes K, Bellis MA, Hardcastle KA, McHale P, Bennett A, Ireland R, et al. Associations between e-cigarette access and smoking and drinking behaviours in teenagers. BMC Public Health. 2015;15:244.View ArticlePubMedPubMed CentralGoogle Scholar
  12. Corey C, Wang B, Johnson SE, Apelberg B, Husten C, King BA, et al. Notes from the field: electronic cigarette use among middle and high school students - United States, 2011–2012. MMWR. 2013;62:729–30.Google Scholar
  13. Wills TA, Knight R, Williams RJ, Pagano I, Sargent JD. Risk factors for exclusive e-cigarette use and dual e-cigarette use and tobacco use in adolescents. Pediatrics. 2015;135:E43–51.View ArticlePubMedPubMed CentralGoogle Scholar
  14. Goniewicz ML, Gawron M, Nadolska J, Balwicki L, Sobczak A. Rise in electronic cigarette use among adolescents in Poland. J Adolesc Health. 2014;55:713–5.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Camenga DR, Kong G, Cavallo DA, Liss A, Hyland A, Delmerico J, et al. Alternate tobacco product and drug use among adolescents who use electronic cigarettes, cigarettes only, and never smokers. J Adolesc Health. 2014;55:588–91.View ArticlePubMedPubMed CentralGoogle Scholar
  16. Kandel DB. Stages and pathways of drug involvement: examining the gateway hypothesis. New York: Cambridge University Press; 2002.View ArticleGoogle Scholar
  17. Choo T, Roh S, Robinson M. Assessing the “Gateway Hypothesis” among middle and high school students in Tennessee. J Drug Issues. 2008;38:467–92.View ArticleGoogle Scholar
  18. DuPont RL. Getting tough on gateway drugs: a guide for the family. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Press; 1984.Google Scholar
  19. Hall WD, Linskey M. Is cannabis a gateway drug? Testing hypotheses about the relationship between cannabis use and the use of other illicit drugs. Drug Alcohol Rev. 2005;24:39–48.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Sigfusdottir ID, Thorlindsson T, Kristjansson AL, Roe KM, Allegrante JP. Substance use prevention for adolescents: the Icelandic model. Health Promot Internation. 2009;24:16–25.View ArticleGoogle Scholar
  21. Kristjansson AL, James JE, Allegrante JP, Sigfusdottir ID, Helgason AR. Adolescent substance use, parental monitoring, and leisure time activities: 12-year outcomes of primary prevention in Iceland. Prev Med. 2010;51:168–71.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Petraitis J, Flay BR, Miller TQ. Reviewing theories of adolescent substance use: organizing pieces in the puzzle. Psychol Bull. 1995;117:67–86.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Hawkins JD, Catalano RF, Miller JY. Risk and protective factors for alcohol and other drug problems in adolescence and early adulthood: Implications for substance use prevention. Psychol Bull. 1992;112:64–105.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Pentz MA, Shin H, Riggs N, Unger JB, Collison KL, Chou CP. Parent, peer, and executive functioning relationships to early adolescent e-cigarette use: a substance use pathway? Addict Behav. 2015;42:73–8.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Amrock SM, Zakhar J, Zhou S, Weitzman M. Perception of e-cigarette harm and its correlation with use among U.S. adolescents. Nicotine Tob Res. 2015;17:330–6.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar


© Kristjansson and Sigfusdottir; licensee BioMed Central. 2015

This article is published under license to BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly credited. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.