Researchers have warned that treating e-cigarettes and cigarettes equally could lead to misguided research and policy initiatives.

“Comparing cigarettes to e-cigarettes can give us a false sense of what dangers exist because it misses the gap in understanding how people use them and how they can make people dependent,” said lead author Matthew Olonoff, doctoral student at Northwestern University in Illinois, US.

“Before we start making policy changes, such as controlling nicotine or flavour options in e-cigarettes, we need to better understand what role these unique characteristics have,” he added, in the paper published in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research.

Emphasising that there are enough differences between cigarettes and especially newer-generation devices, to show that they are not interchangeable nicotine delivery systems, Olonoff noted that research on e-cigarettes should be very different from that on traditional cigarettes.

“Teenagers could potentially be getting addicted to something dangerous and harmful to their health,” Olonoff said. “The only way we’ll know if this is true is to study e-cigarettes as if they’re their own unique device.”

E-cigarettes have been commercially available since the mid-2000s, Olonoff said. The technology has been advancing rapidly, which makes it nearly impossible to set up-to-date policy initiatives.

When e-cigarettes were introduced, marketing campaigns suggested they could be used to curb cigarette use. But years later, this claim is still unsubstantiated, Olonoff said.

“We’ve done so much to convince our youth that cigarettes and smoking are bad, and overall, it’s been a relatively successful campaign when you look at how much smoking has decreased and continued to decrease,” he said.

“If teenagers use the device and they see it differently than the rest of the nicotine products, the researchers should adopt a different philosophical belief too.”