Just 34% of people can correctly identify vaping as being less harmful than smoking
On Wednesday 4th March Public Health England published it’s sixth independent e-cigarette evidence review. Whilst covering a range of topics, including vaping among people with mental health conditions and pregnant women, the update also provides some very concerning information on the current public perception of the relative harm of smoking and vaping.
The report details that perceptions of harm from vaping among smokers are increasingly out of line with the evidence. The proportion who correctly thought vaping to be less harmful than cigarettes declined from 45% in 2014 to 34% in 2019. It was also noted that these misperceptions are particularly common among smokers who do not vape.
The report highlights the difficulty smokers face in making sense of all the contradictory media reports on the impacts of vaping and smoking. It is therefore unsurprising that a large proportion of current smokers have still never even tried vaping products. The evidence review’s findings also show that almost 2 in every 5 current smokers (37%) have yet to try an e-cigarette. This is despite strong endorsement for smokers to switch to vaping from Public Health England, The Royal College of Physicians and numerous well-respected UK health charities.
Whilst research is still ongoing, there is a wealth of peer-reviewed scientific evidence to support the important role of e-cigarettes in smokers’ successful attempts to quit. The report restates the key evidence and provides a recommendation that health professionals need better information and support. One example is as follows,
Smokers should be encouraged to try regulated nicotine vaping products along with smoking cessation medications and behavioural support. This will greatly increase their chances of successfully stopping smoking.
Unfortunately, the report’s findings highlight that this evidence-based advice is still not reaching the majority of current smokers. Deborah Arnott, Chief Executive of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) urged smokers to be reassured by the authoritative and detailed report as she said,
There are over 6 million smokers in England and smoking is still the leading cause of premature death and disease particularly among the most disadvantaged in our society. Helping more smokers quit is vital if we’re to achieve the government’s vision of a smokefree society by 2030, and vaping has a role to play. Vaping has helped many thousands of smokers quit to date. But many thousands more could benefit if they were not put off by the persistent, worsening and inaccurate beliefs the public hold about vaping. Smokers should be reassured by today’s authoritative and detailed report which shows that the UK’s e-cigarette regulations are effective and vaping remains a safer alternative to smoking. I urge smokers to have confidence in our regulatory system and not be put off by alarmist headlines about the risk of vaping which are not backed up by the evidence.
The cause of incorrect vaping perceptions
As Deborah Arnott states, “alarmist headlines” are undoubtedly putting smokers off trying e-cigarettes. Unfortunately, poor quality research, often championed by anti-vaping organisations with dogmatic anti-nicotine agendas, is frequently front page news in the mainstream media, while high-quality, evidence-based e-cigarette research is seldom reported with any genuine impact.
The report brings into focus the unintended consequences for smokers of the inaccurate media reporting of the outbreak of lung injuries and related deaths in the USA from July 2019. Widespread media coverage, fuelled by misleading statements from national health agencies, falsely attributed acute lung-injury incidents to nicotine-containing e-cigarettes. The primary cause of the outbreak has now been confirmed by the US authorities as Vitamin E Acetate, a thickening agent used in illicit cannabis products. This substance is not permitted as an ingredient in UK-regulated nicotine vaping products. During the peak of the reported incidents, media outlets and even recognised US health authorities incorrectly laid blame on e-cigarettes and urged vapers to stop immediately. With stories like this making front page headlines globally, it can come as no great surprise that so few smokers have the correct perception on the relative harm of vaping compared to smoking.
Professor John Britton Director of Health Improvement at Public Health England shared his concerns,
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 US authorities have now confirmed that vitamin E acetate, a thickening agent added to cannabis vaping liquid, was a primary cause of the US outbreak. This substance is banned in UK-regulated nicotine vaping products.
Britton went on to urge smokers to quit and suggested e-cigarettes as a viable method,
E-cigarettes are far less harmful than smoking, which causes 220 premature deaths a day in England. Our advice remains that for anyone who smokes tobacco, the most important thing is to stop smoking altogether and e-cigarettes can be an effective way to help smokers do that.
The government has a target of creating a smokefree country by 2030. This means that within the next 10 years UK smoking prevalence must drop from around 15% to 5%. The Public Health England 2019 e-cigarette review reaffirms the conclusive evidence that e-cigarettes are far less harmful than smoking. Vaping still has great potential as 37% of smokers are yet to try e-cigarettes. However, this potential can only be realised if perceptions are corrected and smokers are making informed decisions.
We hope this review receives the media attention it deserves and helps to inform smokers of the relative safety of vaping.