Qualitative researchers discuss…vaping and the ‘gateway theory’

The latest discussion from the Qualitative Methods Journal Club is now available online...
Created On: 06 January 2023   (Last updated: 06 January 2023)

The latest discussion from the Qualitative Methods Journal Club is now available online, focusing on a study about the relationship between vaping and smoking among adolescents.

For their 5th contribution to the Qualitative Methods Journal Club, faculty and doctoral students from Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health chose an academic article from the International Journal of Drug Policy about the relationship between e-cigarette use (‘vaping’) and tobacco smoking among a cohort of adolescents.

The group said the context for the study was public concern that the proliferation of vaping among young people could re-normalise cigarette smoking, or encourage young people to initiate cannabis use.

The study involved interviews with 36 young people (aged 14–18) over a period of 6–12 months. Notably, the group said, the study “disrupted the conventional notion that vaping leads to smoking or vice versa”. Put another way, it challenged the popular ‘gateway theory’ of substance use.

“Vaping and smoking are conventionally viewed as linked or associated, which then becomes the end of the story. In this study, however, qualitative narratives revealed multi-directional connections between vaping and smoking, and pointed to broader themes, including risk behaviors and experimentation, consumption practices, and youth culture.”

Journal club members liked the alternative sociological concept of substance use ‘careers’ in the article, which “describe[d] decisions and pathways among people who use substances, including vaping and tobacco smoking, that result in achieved outcomes rather than just passive or random patterns of use”.

Overall, the group viewed the article as “a good example of how to integrate theory and qualitative methods to challenge and unpack one of the orthodoxies in the field of substance use”.

“While vaping and cigarette smoking may be linked in particular individual cases, this article demonstrates that the connection is by no means inevitable or necessarily causal, which is an important contribution to both the fields of substance use and public health.”

Read the full discussion here, and see the collection of QMJC meetings here.

Original article: From gateways to multilinear connections: a qualitative longitudinal investigation of the relationships between vaping and smoking among adolescent users. By Jason Hughes and colleagues. Published in the International Journal of Drug Policy (2021).

by Natalie Davies


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