Children who try e-cigarettes are 12 times more likely to smoke tobacco, research has found. Picture: AP

Children who try e-cigarettes are 12 times more likely to smoke tobacco, research has found.

Scientists have uncovered strong evidence of a so-called ‘gateway effect’, according to the first UK study of its kind.

The results are highly controversial because public health officials have been promoting e-cigarettes as a safe way of quitting smoking.

Researchers from King’s College London and Cancer Research UK looked at 1,152 children aged 11 to 18, who were subsequently followed for four to six months.

At the beginning of the study, a total of 11.4 % had tried e-cigarettes and 19.8 % had used ordinary tobacco cigarettes.

After between four and six months, those who had tried an e-cig were 12 times more likely to move on to tobacco cigarettes compared to children who had never used them.

The results were published in a little-known journal at the end of last month, but not widely publicised in the media.

They fly in the face of the campaign from Public Health England that e-cigarettes should be widely promoted as a safe alternative to tobacco.

Only last month the organisation published a major report urging doctors to prescribe the devices to smokers – including pregnant women.Officials at PHE – the Government’s health protection agency – have also insisted there is no evidence e-cigarettes encourage children to start smoking tobacco. But a growing number of experts are worried about their long-term effects, particularly as there is so little evidence on their safety.

Research on animals has linked them to certain cancers, heart disease and lung conditions. The findings of this study are being circulated among academics and officials at local councils who are concerned about PHE’s recommendations. Published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, it was the first to examine the evidence of a gateway effect of e-cigarettes and tobacco.

Katie East, lead author of the study from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London, said: ‘These findings do suggest that some young people progress from trying e-cigarettes to trying tobacco cigarettes, but also that some go from trying cigarettes to e-cigarettes.’

Similar research in the US has found children who try e-cigarettes are four times more likely to move on to tobacco.

Later this month the health watchdog Nice will publish guidelines for doctors which are expected to be more cautious about the use of e-cigarettes. They are likely to tell doctors not to prescribe them to those who are trying to quit smoking, due to the limited evidence over their safety.

Instead, patients will be advised try nicotine patches or gum as well as NHS support services.

Around 2.9million adults in the UK use e-cigarettes, while 7.6million smoke ordinary cigarettes.