E-Cigarettes New Gateway Drug
The invention of the e-cigarette, or electronic cigarette, has led to serious debate among experts. Some believe these supposedly harmless devices can help smokers quit, while others see them as untested and potentially dangerous. One major concern is that e-cigarettes may lead to further substance abuse. An e-cigarette, especially for a young person, may be a gateway drug that leads to more serious drug, cigarette or alcohol use.
A Gateway to Substance Abuse
The idea of gateway drugs dates back to the 1970s. A gateway drug hypothesis is based on the observation that young people tend to get into substance abuse and addiction in stages. In the U.S., this path has been seen to follow well-defined steps. Research has shown that many adolescents start with a substance that is legal, such as cigarettes or alcohol, then move on to an illegal but minimally risky drug like marijuana. From there the young substance abuser starts using harder drugs like cocaine or heroin. Not all get to the latter stage, but those who do follow this predictable pattern. The first substance used is the gateway to later, riskier substance abuse.
E-Cigarettes: The New Gateway Drug
Traditionally, cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana all have been considered gateway drugs for young people. Today, many experts worry that e-cigarettes will become yet another gateway drug.
To understand this, it helps to know exactly what an e-cigarette is. The electronic device uses a small battery to heat and vaporize a vial of liquid. The liquid is water with dissolved nicotine and sometimes flavors or aromas as well. The user inhales water vapor and nicotine.
E-cigarettes were developed to give smokers a healthier alternative to cigarettes. When inhaling cigarette smoke, the user gets a lungful of thousands of harmful compounds. The makers of e-cigarettes say that their devices produce just nicotine and water vapor. They are supposed to be used as tools for quitting cigarettes and reducing the risks of developing lung cancer and other illnesses.
While e-cigarettes may not be as harmful to health as tobacco cigarettes, they do still provide nicotine, a highly addictive substance. Studies have shown that the nicotine hit in an e-cigarette can act as the gateway drug for a young person, just as cigarettes have done in the past. Researchers see evidence that nicotine users are at a greater risk for using other drugs, particularly cocaine. The way in which nicotine impacts the brain seems to especially prime a user for trying cocaine. The two substances complement and enhance each other.
Experts are worried about e-cigarettes as gateway drugs for young people for another reason. Although they may be useful tools for smokers to quit, non-smokers are starting to use these devices in huge numbers. Young people who otherwise never smoked are trying e-cigarettes because of the perceived safety. In 2013, more than 250,000 teenagers who had never smoked before used e-cigarettes.
The statistic is troubling for several reasons, including the gateway drug hypothesis. E-cigarettes are reaching far more young people than tobacco cigarettes would have. Furthermore, the true safety of these devices is not fully known, and nicotine is an addictive drug. E-cigarettes could be creating a whole new generation of addicts, many of whom may turn to harder drugs in the future. More research into the safety of e-cigarettes is needed, and more awareness of the ability of these devices to act as gateway drugs could help prevent future addictions.