Current claims that vaping could be linked with depression are a clear example of people choosing to confuse correlation with causation. It is an exercise in fake news and pseudoscience which ignores other probable causes for depression and also ignores that it might have existed before the person switched to electronic cigarettes.
What are “correlation” and “causation”?
This is a word used in statistics where one thing appears to have a relationship with another thing, they appear to be related. To the untrained eye, one thing may appear to cause the other thing to happen.
Absolutely. If you plot a graph of the number of films Nicholas Cage has appeared in by year, the result almost perfectly matches the number of people who have drowned by falling into a swimming pool in America.
Now, while some people really don’t like Nicholas Cage films, it is highly unlikely that he causes people to take such drastic action to avoid seeing them. Confusing the two things as being related is called conflation.
Tyler Vigen has produced many examples of the conflation of correlation and causation:
- Per capita cheese consumption vs people dying by getting tangled in bedsheets
- The age of Miss America vs murders by steam, hot vapours and hot objects
- Crude oil imports from Norway vs Drivers killed in a collision with a railway rain
Dr Obisesan of John Hopkins University looked for an association between e-cigarettes and depression. He wrote in his paper: “The researchers found that 34% of current e-cigarette users reported having experienced clinical depression, compared with 15% of those who had never vaped.”
In another piece of work, Professors Antwi and Rhodes, State University of New York, said their study found a “significant association between e-cigarette use and depression in cancer survivors.”
Who is promoting work like this and furthering the claims?
American anti-tobacco group the Truth Initiative includes references to vaping causing depression in teens in its press releases.
It wrote in a report accompanying a marketing campaign: “Two health crises among youth — a mental health crisis and a vaping epidemic — pose increasing threats to a generation of young people…While it is well known that nicotine harms developing brains…lesser known are the worrying connections between nicotine and mental health.”
Has anyone rebuked their stance?
These are arguments “based on a shallow reading of the evidence,” according to the American Council on Science and Health’s Cameron English.
Historically, people suffering from depression have self-administered nicotine through smoking. From a review of over 300 research papers, experts said there is a “high reward value of smoking in these motivational states.”
Cameron says: “Nicotine has a well-documented antidepressant effect. Because it stimulates dopamine release, depressed patients often resort to smoking (or vaping) to mitigate the ‘adverse effects of stressful stimuli.’ Depressed smokers have reported mood improvements that depression-free smokers don’t experience after finishing a cigarette.”
So, rather than vaping causing depression as some would have you believe, it appears to be more the other way around that those people who are depressed choose to smoke or vape – their findings are another example of correlation, not causation and vaping is as likely to increase cheese consumption or cause people to get tangled in bedsheets.
If you are suffering from depression or mental health issues, please know you are not alone. Help is out there, and there is no shame in talking to someone about your state of mind. The UK’s NHS offers multiple support groups along with other options that can help: