- Vaping is key weapon in stopping smoking
- Fewer concerns that vaping is gateway to smoking
- MPs call for different policies to encourage vaping
Vaping is much less harmful than smoking, and the UK government should actively support ecigarettes to reduce the death and disease caused by tobacco, according to MPs.
With the world of public health divided about the risks from vaping, MPs on the Commons science and technology committee took a pragmatic view.
In a report published on Friday, the committee said that about 2.9m people in the UK are using ecigarettes, including 470,000 who are trying to stop smoking.
“Concerns that ecigarettes could be a gateway to conventional smoking, including for young non-smokers, have not materialised,” said Norman Lamb, who chairs the committee. Instead, he added, “ecigarettes could be a key weapon in the NHS’s stop-smoking arsenal”.
The report acknowledges that further research is needed to investigate the risks associated with long term use of ecigarettes. But it concludes that the balance of risk is heavily in favour of using them as nicotine delivery devices to encourage smokers to switch from conventional cigarettes, which currently kill about 79,000 people in England every year.
While gaps in evidence remain about how effective ecigarettes are as anti-smoking aids, tens of thousands of people a year are thought to use them successfully to quit.
Long term research needed
The MPs call for a review of policies where ecigarettes are treated in the same way as conventional cigarettes, particularly over their use in public places. Ecigarette consumers typically have to use the same outside space as conventional smokers, even though they may be trying to quit the habit. John Donne, of the UK Vaping Industry, compared this practice to “putting an alcoholic in a bar”.
The report is particularly critical of attitudes to ecigarettes within the NHS. “Forty per cent of people with mental health issues still smoke,” said Mr Lamb, “yet we found that — scandalously — one-third of NHS mental health trusts ban ecigarettes within their facilities.”
The committee recommended a transparent long-term research programme to investigate the risk of the increasingly wide range of ecigarettes and other nicotine-based non-smoking products, with findings being made public annually and via an online hub.
This includes “heat not burn” products such as IQOS — which produce nicotine from tobacco but without combustion — where there is a lack of independent research about how harmful they are.
Medical licensing of ecigarettes should be made easier, the MPs said, so that doctors could prescribe them like nicotine patches to help patients stop smoking. At present this is not possible.
Ecigarettes ‘far healthier’
David Thickett, of Birmingham university, who published a study this week in the journal Thorax on the effects of ecigarettes on lung cells, said: “There is clearly concern about the safety of ecigarettes. Only today I had an email from long term user (vaper) who wanted to know whether his lungs would be affected.”
Research into the health effects of ecigarettes is hampered by the fact that the vast majority of users have previously been smokers. But Prof Thickett pointed to a study of 6,000 adolescents in Hawaii, recently published in Preventive Medicine, which showed that ecigarettes were associated with asthma in 12 to 18-year-olds. These results were consistent with laboratory research on effects of ecigarette vapour on the respiratory system, he said.
“There’s no doubt ecigarettes are far healthier than smoking tobacco,” Prof Thickett said. “But even though the vapour contains substantially lower levels of carcinogenic chemicals, more research is needed to understand the effects of the vapour fluid and nicotine on driving inflammatory responses which could lead to lung disease.”
Vast majority of vapers are former smokers
The pressure group Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) published new data on Thursday ahead of the committee’s report, showing that vaping by young people in Britain is rare and largely confined to those who already smoke tobacco. The findings come from Ash’s annual YouGov survey of ecigarette use among 11 to 18-year-olds. Just 2 per cent of youths use ecigarettes at least weekly, while another 2 per cent use them occasionally (once a month or less).
Hazel Cheeseman, director of policy at Ash, said: “There has been widespread concern that ecigarettes will cause more young people to take up smoking but these fears are unfounded. Today’s data shows that despite some evidence of experimentation, regular use is rare and almost exclusively found among a declining number of children who smoke tobacco cigarettes.”
According to Ash, the vast majority of adult ecigarette users in the UK are current or — increasingly — former smokers, most of whom are trying to stay off cigarettes or reduce the amount they smoke. Only a tiny fraction (3 per cent) have never smoked regularly.