Today, Public Health England (PHE) released a report titled “Regular e-cigarette use remains low among young people in Britain”. The research was conducted by King’s College London and commissioned by PHE.
As the title suggests, it shows that the number of under 18’s who are vaping regularly is low. It also showed that the number of adult vapers has plateaued. It was therefore suggested that more should be done to help smokers quit with the help of an e-cigarette.
Youth uptake of vaping in the UK
One of the main topics covered in the report is that youth uptake of vaping in the UK is minimal. It states in the report that:
“Only 1.7% of under-18s use e-cigarettes weekly or more, and the vast majority of those also smoke. Among young people who have never smoked, only 0.2% use e-cigarettes regularly.”
These are encouraging figures and show that there is no real threat of minors taking up vaping regularly. This is particularly important and relevant due to genuine fears in the USA that they have an epidemic of kids’ vaping.
Professor John Newton, PHE Health Improvement Director said:
“In contrast to recent media reports in the US, we are not seeing a surge in e-cigarette use among young people in Britain.
While more young people are experimenting with e-cigarettes, the crucial point is that regular use remains low and is very low indeed among those who have never smoked.
We will keep a close watch on young people’s vaping and smoking habits to ensure we stay on track to achieve our ambition of a smoke-free generation.”
Twisting the headlines
Incredibly, media outlets have managed to twist this report and turn it on its head. Newspaper headlines read “More children in the UK trying vaping” and “number of children vaping doubles in 5 years”.
These media sources have focused on figures showing an increase in youth uptake, but in isolation from the real story. It is true that the percentage of 11 to 18 year olds that use e-cigarettes grew over the 5 years in which vaping established itself as a tobacco alternative. This prevalence grew from 1.6% to 3.4%, but both of these are low figures, and meaningless without data about how many in the age group have ever had a puff on a “real” cigarette.
Not one report we have seen mentions that at smoking prevalence is far higher than vaping in this age group, with 9.6% being current or former smokers. Similarly in 2018 almost 20% of 11-18 year olds surveyed had tried smoking, and less than 16% had tried vaping.
The fact that “0.2% of children who have never smoked are regular e-cigarette users” should be of far more interest, as it is a clear indication that young non-smokers taking up vaping regularly is almost non-existent. As Professor Newton previously stated, the crucial point is that regular use remains low and is very low indeed among those who have never smoked.
Consequently a report written by responsible scientists, in the employ of a legitimate Government agency, and clearly intended to instil confidence in vaping, has been flipped to have the opposite effect. This type of irresponsible reporting is sadly not uncommon; scare stories and misleading headlines concerning the vaping industry can be rife, particularly in “slow news” periods.
This may sell newspapers, but it is damaging to public health, as it is likely to result in the perpetuation of a huge opportunity being missed.
A missed opportunity
E-cigarettes are now recognised as the most popular smoking cessation aid in the UK. Despite this, many stop smoking services remain reluctant to utilise them. The PHE report states that “just 4% of quit attempts through stop smoking services are made through using e-cigarettes”.
This is a clear indication that vaping is a not being encouraged or effectively encouraged as prominently as it could be within this area. The report therefore recommended that “Stop Smoking Services should do more to encourage smokers that want to quit with the help of an e-cigarette.”
Professor John Newton also commented on these findings, he said:
“We could accelerate the decline in smoking if more smokers switched completely to vaping. Recent new evidence clearly shows using an e-cigarette with Stop Smoking Service support can double your chances of quitting.
But with e-cigarettes currently used so rarely in services, it’s time for change. Every Stop Smoking Service must start talking much more about the potential of vaping to help smokers quit.
If you smoke, switching to vaping could save you years of ill health, and even your life.”
Over one third of smokers in the UK have never tried vaping, and at the same time the UK’s dramatic reduction in smoking prevalence over the last seven years has effectively stalled, leaving an obvious opportunity that experts are urging health professionals to take up.
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action and Smoking and Health (ASH) said:
“ASH survey results included in the PHE report show the vast majority of vaping is by smokers trying to quit or prevent themselves from relapsing, which is just what e-cigarettes are designed for.
“However, our surveys also show that over a third of smokers have not yet tried vaping, which is a colossal missed opportunity as there is growing evidence that e-cigarettes are the most effective aid to quitting.”
Ann McNeill, professor of tobacco addiction at King’s College London and the lead author of the report, shared similar views. She said:
“With just over a third of adult smokers having never tried an e-cigarette, there is a clear opportunity for more smokers to try a method which has helped many others to quit. Smokers should be advised to stop smoking as soon as possible and explore all available options for support, including e-cigarettes.”
The latest Public Health England report is very encouraging. There seems to be very little threat of youth vaping uptake in the UK, and a massive opportunity to allow vaping to reach its potential by using stop smoking services more effectively.
However, the headlines it has generated have been irresponsibly negative, focusing on aspects that can shock when reported without objectivity or context. We hope that the true, responsible message can cut through the fake news.
The report is the first in a set of 3 which will be commissioned by PHE under the Government’s Tobacco Control Plan for England. One of these will focus on the health impacts, and we very much look forward to seeing the results, but perhaps not the tabloid media’s interpretation of them.