Background: In 2015, 12.1% of 12- to 17-year-olds in Germany had reportedly already tried e-cigarette smoking at least once. We carried out a study of the "gateway" hypothesis, according to which the use of e-cigarettes can motivate adolescents to start smoking conventional cigarettes.
Methods: During the 2015/2016 school year, 2186 tenth-graders in the German states of Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein who had never smoked conventional cigarettes before took part in a survey over a 6-month period (mean age 15.5 years, standard deviation 0.65; 53.6% female).
Results: 14.3% of the survey population (313 adolescents) said at the start of the survey period that they had already tried e-cigarettes at least once. By the end of the survey period, 12.3% (268) of those who had never smoked before had begun to experiment with conventional cigarettes. The risk of beginning such experimentation was 2.2 times higher among e-cigarette users. This association remained (relative risk = 2.18 [1.65; 2.83]) after statistical control for age, sex, state, immigrant background, type of school, socioeconomic status, various personality traits (sensation-seeking, impulsivity, anxiety, hopelessness, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, openness), and the use of alcohol, cannabis, and other illicit drugs. Further analysis revealed that the association between the use of e-cigarettes and the onset of conventional cigarette smoking was stronger among adolescents with low sensation-seeking scores and without any experience of alcohol intoxication.
Conclusion: Among adolescents who have never smoked, experimentation with conventional cigarettes is more common in those who have used e-cigarettes. This effect seems to be stronger among adolescents who, in general, have a lower risk of starting to smoke. The 6-month observation period of this study is too short to allow any inference regarding a connection between e-cigarette use and the development of tobacco dependence.