The international growth of e-cigarette use has been accompanied by a corresponding concern that e-cigarettes will act as a ‘gateway’ to smoking and the use of other drugs. Taking these concerns as our point of departure, we explore the relationships between vaping and smoking among a cohort of young people.
Qualitative longitudinal methods with a diverse sample of 36 14-18-year olds from the UK city of Leicester. A total of 66 depth interviews conducted across two phases separated by 6-12 months. The interviews were recorded, transcribed verbatim and thematically analysed.
We highlight a complex ‘tangle’ of connections between substances/risk behaviours recounted to us by our adolescent study participants, including multiple and multilinear relationships between vaping and smoking. These findings problematise some of the core axioms of the notion of gateways as an explanatory model of causality and sequential connection between smoking and vaping. They also throw into question gateway logics more fundamentally. While many of our study participants themselves consciously invoked ideas of ‘gateway effects’, the accounts they produced repeatedly disrupted the logics of connection (between e-cigarettes and smoking; one set of behaviours and another) presupposed in gateway theory and our own early lines of questioning. Accordingly, we explore how cultural understandings of gateway effects are invoked by users in accounting for their vaping and smoking behaviours, noting the potential influence of these ideas upon the very processes they are understood to apprehend.
Our findings suggest there is a case to be made to reinforce the distinctiveness of tobacco and e-cigarettes in the life-worlds of young people to avoid naturalising a ‘gateway’ logic of connection that might ultimately inform the associative logic of young users themselves, and potentially the development of their usage careers.

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