Although not harmless, the evidence is unequivocal that vaping is much safer than smoking. But misinformation and scaremongering could still be putting people off switching.
Search for the term ‘vaping’ online and you’d be forgiven for thinking that it is an activity fraught with risks. The top stories relate to health problems and explosions, as well as some even stating than vaping leads to smoking in teenagers. For the average smoker seeking information on vaping, a quick internet search offers little reassurance. The headlines often imply that you might as well continue smoking if e cigarettes are so dangerous.
But the reality is that they are not. More than any other year, the last 12 months witnessed an accumulation of evidence which proved that using an e cigarette is far safer than smoking. 2017 saw the publication of the first long term study of vaping. The study compared the toxicant exposure between people who’d stopped smoking and used the products for an average of 16 months, compared with those who continued to smoke. Funded by Cancer Research UK, the study found large reductions in carcinogens and other toxic compounds in vapers compared with smokers, but only if the user had stopped smoking completely. A recent study compared toxicants in vapour and smoke that can cause cancer, and estimated excess cancer risk over a lifetime from smoking cigarettes or vaping. Most of the available data on e cigarettes in this study suggested a cancer risk from vaping around 1% of that from smoking.
E cigarettes are less harmful than smoking because they don’t contain tobacco. Inhaling burnt tobacco – but also chewing it – is hugely damaging to human health. Remove the tobacco and the combustion and it is hardly surprising that risk is greatly reduced. Although this doesn’t mean that e cigarettes are harmless altogether, it does mean that we can be relatively confident that switching from smoking to vaping will have health benefits.
These new studies and others have influenced policy, at least in the UK. In England, a broad consensus endorsed by many health organisations has existed since 2016 encouraging smokers to try vaping. This year additional organisations, such as the Royal College of General Practitioners and the British Medical Association, issued new reports which highlighted that e cigarettes are a positive choice for smokers trying to quit. In addition, Public Health England included e cigarettes in its advertising for ‘Stoptober’, an annual stop smoking campaign. In Scotland, a large number of organisations led by Health Scotland issued a consensus statement making it clear that vaping is definitely safer than smoking. This statement was supported by Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer.
Overseas, many countries still ban the use of e cigarettes. Many of these countries have imposed fines or even imprisonment for vapers or vendors. However, this is slowly changing. 2017 saw a complete reversal of New Zealand’s position on these devices and their new policies look very similar to those in place in the UK. Canada is also legalising e cigarettes, although details of the regulatory framework are still being ironed out. If these countries are following and trusting evidence found in research, then perhaps others will follow in time.
A primary reason for caution in many countries is the fear that vaping will lead to smoking, particularly in young people. Although there was research provided that some teenagers experimenting with vaping go on to smoke a year later, there seems little doubt that there are groups of young people susceptible to both. Yet these studies can’t prove that it was the act of trying an e cigarette that lead to subsequent smoking – many other factors could explain this, including the simple fact that tobacco is still widely available. 2017 saw the publication of the world’s largest study to date of young people and vaping, including over 60,000 teenagers. It found that while experimentation with these products was occurring, regular use by teens who had never smoked remains very low, at less than 1%. Meanwhile in the UK and many other countries like the USA, youth smoking rates continue to decline at an encouraging pace. If vaping was causing smoking, these trends would reverse.
So, what is the average smoker to make of the continued controversy, and seemingly insatiable press interest around e cigarettes? Who should they believe? Good sources of information do exist but they are not prominent enough. We need clear public information, from reputable sources, to shout above the noise and deliver the facts. And these are the facts: if you are a smoker, the best thing you can do for your health and the health of those around you is to stop smoking. If you choose to vape to stop smoking, that’s great, and no one should criticise you for that choice.
Original source written by Linda Bauld.
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