Does Vaping Lead to Cocaine Use?

American researchers at the Ohio State University have conducted an investigation using date obtained from the United Kingdom’s Millennium Cohort Study. The team wanted to find out “whether [teen] e-cigarette use…is associated with later cocaine use”. Many such claims have been made in the past, but even this team admit that there is, at best, “limited evidence” to support them.

The paper “Associations Between E-Cigarettes and Subsequent Cocaine Use in Adolescence: An Analysis of the UK Millennium Cohort Study” was published by Nicotine & Tobacco Research last week. This means there is a strong likelihood that the media will be covering some of the more salacious comments in the near future.

Coverage will probably fuel fears that vaping causes teenagers to abuse illicit drugs. This is because we have seen this before. Eight years ago, The Daily Mirror began running a series of articles suggesting that e-cigs lead to drug use.

In 2014, the Mirror stated that vaping leads to cocaine and cannabis use. It regurgitated ideas from a duo of American researchers who claimed that because nicotine acts on the same centres of the brain that illicit drugs do, it would mean these areas become sensitised to stimulation and young people would feel an urge to progress. The story was run despite the pair stating: “We don’t yet know whether e-cigarettes will prove to be a gateway to the use of … illicit drugs, but that’s certainly a possibility”.

The newspaper continued with the theme for a couple of years thanks to the able input of a handful of British academics who ideologically oppose anything that looks like smoking. The theme was then picked up by the Daily Mail which, in 2017, wrote about “alarming numbers of e-cigarette users … modifying their vaping devices so they can inhale vapour from banned drugs.”

Buried away at the foot of the article, the Mail quoted a teen addiction specialist saying he’d seen little evidence to support such claims.

So, does this mean the latest study finally provides some harm evidence to support these claims that vaping poses a future drug risk?

The team looked at UK data to “examine the association between e-cigarette use by age 14 and cocaine use by age 17.” They say their results showed a 2.7x increased risk for teen vapers, concluding: “These findings in a UK sample showed that e-cigarette use in early adolescence is associated with higher odds of cocaine use later in adolescence, similar to risks posed by tobacco cigarette smoking.”

But there is a problem.

Multiple studies, including one from University College London’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies, used the same data to look at general risk-taking during adolescence. “Risky activities, like binge drinking,
habitual smoking and anti-social behaviour, increase sharply in adolescence, with potential long-term consequences for young people’s health and wellbeing,” they wrote.

Looking at teen data to prove a link between vaping and drug use isn’t the same as actually monitoring and interviewing. What the University College London work shows is that a whole blanket of activities can result from a predisposition for risk taking behaviour, not that doing one thing causes someone to begin doing another.

Returning to the question ‘does this mean the latest study finally provides some harm evidence to support these claims that vaping poses a future drug risk?’, the answer is still no, we don’t have any evidence to support such an allegation. Moreover, risk taking studies suggest there is no direct link.