Fears that e-cigarettes are no less dangerous than smoking are growing

Author: Ingrid Torjesen

An increasing number of smokers now believe vaping products are more harmful or equally as bad as smoking cigarettes so are not inclined to use them, Public Health England’s (PHE) latest e-cigarette report* has found.

This mistaken belief that e-cigarettes are more harmful than smoking increased rapidly among UK smokers following the US lung injury outbreak in autumn 2019. US authorities have confirmed that vitamin E acetate, a thickening agent added to cannabis vaping products, was a primary cause of the US outbreak. This substance is banned from UK-regulated nicotine vaping products.

The proportion of smokers who thought vaping was less harmful than cigarettes declined from 45% in 2014 to 34% in 2019, the figures show, and these misperceptions are particularly common among smokers who do not vape. The proportion of current smokers who have not tried vaping products remained at 37% between 2018 and 2019.

PHE’s advice remains that smokers should continue to be encouraged to try regulated nicotine vaping products along with other stop smoking aids and behavioural support, to increase their chances of successfully stopping smoking.

Current vaping prevalence (any current use) among adults in England has remained stable since 2014, and in 2019 was between 5% and 7%. Current vaping prevalence among smokers has shown little change since 2014, while it has continued to rise among former smokers from 12% to 13% in 2019. Current vaping prevalence among young people has also remained “reasonably steady”.

Professor John Newton, director of Health Improvement at Public Health England, said: “It is concerning to see how much the US lung disease outbreak has affected smokers’ views on e-cigarettes here in the UK. Safety fears may well be deterring many smokers from switching, leaving them on a path to years of ill health and an early death due to their smoking.”

“The proportion of smokers who do not currently use e-cigarettes and believe use is less harmful than smoking has fallen to less than a third, while more than half believe e-cigarettes to be equally or more harmful than smoking,” said Professor Jamie Brown, professor of Behavioural Science & Health at University College London, commenting on the report.

“E-cigarettes have helped many thousands of smokers to quit in the UK and have an important role to play in reducing the enormous burden of smoking. This report should reassure smokers whose views on the relative harm of e-cigarettes have clearly deteriorated over the last year.”

The report warns that a ban on flavoured liquids could also deter some smokers from switching to e-cigarettes completely and also push current vapers towards illicit products.

The report also highlighted that health professionals need better information and training to support people with mental health conditions to use e-cigarettes to quit smoking. Alongside the report PHE has published some advice advice on vaping in NHS mental health trusts to promote consistency in smokefree policy and practice across such trusts. The advice recommends being clear about where people can and cannot vape in hospital grounds and buildings.

*Vaping in England: evidence update March 2020. Public Health England, 4 March 2020.