When electronic cigarettes were first introduced in 2004, one of their touted benefits was that they could help people to quit their nicotine habits. However, they seem to be having the opposite effect, particularly among young people. A study appearing this week in the journal Pediatrics has found that, far from discouraging the nicotine habit, e-cigarettes may very well lead youth to start smoking cigarettes who otherwise might not have done so.

This confirms an earlier study that was carried out at Georgia State University, and appeared in Nicotine and Tobacco Research. Based on data from surveys taken from 2011 to 2013, the study found that nearly 44 percent of adolescents who had used e-cigarettes planned to start smoking conventional cigarettes within twelve months, as opposed to 22 percent who had not tried e-cigarettes. Yet another study published in the November 2015 issue of JAMA Pediatrics found that “use of e-cigarettes at baseline was associated with progression to traditional cigarette smoking.”

The bottom line: far from discouraging cigarette smoking among teens, e-cigarettes appear to be the proverbial “gateway” leading to actual tobacco use later on. Dr. Lauren Dutra of U.C. San Francisco’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education says that adolescents who start with e-cigarettes and go on to use the real thing “aren’t the kids we would normally expect to take up smoking.”

Since these devices were not subject to FDA regulations until very recently, the tobacco companies that manufacturer e-cigarettes have been able to promote them as a way to stop smoking tobacco cigarettes, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. What is especially egregious is that tobacco companies market these devices in various flavors such as bubble gum, chocolate and strawberry in order to appeal to the youth market.

Here is a dirty secret: people who start smoking tobacco as adults usually find it much easier to stop. However, for those who start their nicotine habit as children or teenagers, quitting is far more difficult. The reason: young people’s bodies are still growing and developing. When nicotine – which is as addictive as heroin or cocaine – is introduced into the mix, it affects young bodies in such a way that the addiction becomes hard-wired into their systems.

It is something that Big Tobacco has always known. By getting children hooked on their products, they wind up with steady customers for life. They may be prohibited from marketing regular tobacco cigarettes anymore, but because e-cigarettes have been largely unregulated, they have had free rein to target whomever they think they can get hooked on their poison with this new product.

Parents should understand that simply because these companies claim their product is somehow “safer” than regular tobacco doesn’t mean they are. It is true that the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes is largely unknown, but scientific evidence that use of “vape” (as it is often called) can and does lead to the same dangerous health effects, such as popcorn lung, a very serious lung disease.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.