In a major victory for vaping advocates around the world, UK health agency Public Health England released details of its study this week that found electronic cigarettes to be ’95 percent less harmful’ than traditional cigarettes. The landmark study is the first time a government health agency has publicly defended e-cigarettes as a less harmful alternative to tobacco smoking. The study also found no real evidence that vaping leads children or non-smokers to use tobacco, shooting down the ‘gateway’ claims of some anti-vaping lobbyists.
Although the study was limited to the UK, it does echo the findings found in other positive studies supporting electronic cigarettes. Most vapers in the country – about 2.6 million – are current or former smokers. Only one percent of vapers in the UK are individuals that have never smoked before, it found.
Professors Ann McNeill of King’s College London and Peter Hajek of Queen Mary University also believe that the study supports the argument that e-cigs are contributing to falling smoking rates in the UK – and much of the world.
McNeill strongly urged current smokers to consider vaping as a safer alternative:
There is no evidence that e-cigarettes are undermining England’s falling smoking rates. Instead the evidence consistently finds that e-cigarettes are another tool for stopping smoking and in my view smokers should try vaping and vapers should stop smoking entirely.
Public Unaware of Vaping Benefits
There is a bit of concern in the results for anyone who advocates vaping, though. The public is increasingly unaware of the benefits, and in some cases believe that it’s as dangerous as smoking. Worse yet, the numbers who do think it is dangerous is going up. In 2013, only 8.1% of respondents believed that e-cigs were as harmful as cigarettes: that number nearly tripled to 22.7% in 2015.
Why the increase? Much of it can be blamed on shifts in media coverage. As vaping has increased in popularity, so has media attention. In recent months, as news of the incoming FDA regulations has gotten more coverage, negative stories have become more commonplace. Anti-vaping activists (who are often funded by Big Tobacco) are out in full force pushing their anti-vaping message. Whether it’s supported by science or not, the media loves a good scare story about vaping.
While the proposed FDA regulations will only affect electronic cigarette manufacturers in the US, the story has made international news. So far in the UK though, government response towards vaping seems to be much less negative, and e-cigarettes are seen as a potential way for smokers to quit.
One of those experts lauding the benefits is Hajek, who suggests that smokers new to electronic cigarettes and vaping will give it several tries, even if the first is not successful merely for the health benefit alone.
My reading of the evidence is that smokers who switch to vaping remove almost all the risks smoking poses to their health. Smokers differ in their needs and I would advise them not to give up on e-cigarettes if they do not like the first one they try. It may take some experimentation with different products to find the right one.
E-Cigarettes As Prescription?
One of the most interesting suggestions from the study’s authors is to allow the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) to prescribe electronic cigarettes as a smoking cessation aid to help smokers quit. The NHS is the country’s state-run, government healthcare system, funded through taxpayer dollars.
According to the BBC, between 2013 and 2014, 1.8 million prescriptions were written for a variety of smoking cessation aids in the UK, at a cost of £49 million (about $76.8 million in US dollars). While adding e-cigarettes as a prescription alternative to other nicotine replacement therapies will increase costs, some in the UK see it as a worthwhile expense to help lessen smoking related diseases down the road – which the country’s healthcare system will end up paying for in the end.
In fact, some NHS-sponsored stop smoking services in the country are already promoting vaping as a healthy alternative. Fresh Smoke Free North East, which serves northeastern England, was the first to do so and has made significant progress in getting people to switch to e-cigarettes.
Would such an effort work here in the US? Probably not, given the current climate and the fact that government and health officials have been far less receptive to vaping. Regardless, having any government agency come out in defense of vaping is surely a positive sign any way you look at it.