More and more people are ‘vaping’ – inhaling flavoured vapour from electronic cigarettes (e-cigs) – but controversy still surrounds the practise, with conflicting articles in the media over how safe it is.
Public Health England (PHE) recently published a comprehensive analysis of internationally available data on vaping, its known effects and its impact on helping people quit smoking. It concluded that, while not completely safe, vaping is at least 95% less harmful to health than smoking cigarettes.
It also found that at least 20,000 people per year in the UK were managing to quit smoking by turning to vaping instead, and the true figure could be much higher. The UK now has the second lowest smoking rate in Europe, with 15.8% of the population smoking cigarettes and continuing to fall. Based on its analysis, PHE went further by suggesting e-cigs should be available on the NHS as an aid to quit smoking, for people attending local NHS smoking cessation services.
Other aids, such as nicotine patches and chewing gum, are already provided on the NHS, but the PHE analysis found that vaping is both more effective and more widely used. In short, PHE has come out firmly in favour of vaping as a way to quit smoking, which is far more harmful and costs the NHS billions of pounds each year. Smoking remains the UK’s biggest killer, claiming 79,000 lives per year.
Despite the evidence, around a quarter of the UK population believes vaping is as harmful as smoking, and there are lots of misconceptions and inaccuracies around the use of e-cigs. Now PHE has set out to debunk some of the most persistent myths and misconceptions:
- “E-gigs aren’t regulated so we don’t know what’s in them” – in fact the UK has some of the strictest regulation for vaping products in the world, governing their quality and safety as well as packaging and labelling requirements. Manufactures must supply detailed information to the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, including listing all ingredients, with products independently tested.
- “E-cigs must be harmful as they contain nicotine” – nicotine is the reason people become addicted to smoking, but it carries a minimal risk of harm to health. Instead it is the thousands of other chemicals and toxins in cigarette smoke which cause almost all the harm. Most (but not all) vaping liquids contain some nicotine, but they do not contain two of the most harmful elements of cigarette smoke – tar and carbon monoxide. Other chemicals are present at much lower levels, making vaping at least 95% less harmful than smoking.
- “Exposure to e-cig vapour is harmful to bystanders” – the concept of ‘passive smoking’ (breathing in other people’s secondhand cigarette smoke) is well-established and proven to be harmful, which is why smoking in enclosed public places and workplaces is banned. However, there is no evidence of any health risk to bystanders from ‘passive vaping’. They could still find it unpleasant and it could irritate respiratory conditions such as asthma, so people should always vape with consideration for others around them.
- “E-cigs will lead young people into smoking” – while there is ample evidence that e-cigs are helping thousands of smokers to quit, there is none to support the view that young people will take up vaping because it is fashionable, then move on to cigarettes. In fact, the evidence shows the use of e-cigs is confined almost entirely to people who already smoke or are trying to quit. Smoking rates among young people in the UK continue to decline.
- “Vaping will give you ‘popcorn lung’” – this myth has done the rounds in a series of newspaper articles. ‘Popcorn lung’ is a serious lung disease (bronchiolitis obliterans) caused by a chemical called ‘diacetyl’ and first observed among workers in a popcorn factory, hence its nickname. Some flavourings in e-cig liquids contain diacetyl to give a buttery flavour, but it is banned as an ingredient in the UK. Even when it was used, it was at levels hundreds of times lower than found in cigarette smoke, and not considered a major health risk.
The very best thing for your health is not to smoke or vape at all, and evidence suggests that around 770,000 people in the UK have already stopped smoking by using e-cigs and later quit the e-cigs too. People who vape might start by using liquids which contain nicotine and gradually switch to those which don’t, weaning themselves off the nicotine addiction. Even if they continue vaping, the weight of evidence now clearly shows it is massively less harmful to health than smoking.
To watch a short PHE video on the effects on health of vaping compared to smoking, click here.