The argument over the safety of e-cigarettes has, if you’ll pardon the pun, long been alight, but a recent report issued by Public Health England that advised smokers to begin vaping, has been deemed unsubstantiated and flawed by health experts and scientists.
So, if the experts can’t even agree, then how on earth are the general public supposed to know?
The report concluded that e-cigarettes were 95% less harmful than conventional tobacco and suggested that these devices should be prescribed on the NHS to help people quit smoking. Director of Health and Wellbeing at PHE, Professor Kevin Fenton, stated, “E-cigarettes are significantly less harmful than smoking. One in two lifelong smokers dies from their addiction. All of the evidence suggests that the health risks posed by e-cigarettes are small by comparison but we must continue to study the long-term effects.” On paper, it certainly seems viable, but e-cigarettes have only been around for a few years, which means the long-term effects of using them, instead of traditional cigarettes, cannot actually be recorded. There is no doubt that e-cigarettes contain lower levels of nicotine, which would arguably help people who were looking to lower their intake, but what about the other chemicals; how might they affect our bodies?
Statistics show that approximately 80,000 people a year die of a smoking related illness and perhaps most shocking, especially when we constantly hear on the news about how much our health service is struggling, smoking is costing the NHS a staggering £2 billion every year! It is estimated that 2.6 million people now use e-cigarettes in the UK and they have fast become the most popular quitting aid. However, sceptics are concerned about not only the safety of formaldehyde, which is a main component in e-cigarettes, but also that it may encourage and create a more accessible ‘gateway’ for teenagers and young adults to become smokers. Jane Ellison, the public health minister in England, has been quick to point out that, “Although we recognise the e-cigarettes may help adults to quit, we still want to protect children from the dangers of nicotine, which is why we have made it illegal for under-18s to buy them.”
What are e-cigarettes?
E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that simulate smoking without the combustion of tobacco. This process is known as vaping because vapours are emitted rather than the smoke that we associate with traditional cigarettes. Most e-cigarettes are made up of:
- a battery (to power it)
- an atomiser (to heat it)
- a cartridge (contains the nicotine)
The cartridges are replaceable and are available in numerous different flavours, such as vanilla, cherry, chocolate and apple as well as the flavours of branded cigarettes such as Marlboro and Camel. The nicotine strength can vary between cartridges and is combined in liquid form with propylene glycol or sometimes glycerine and water.
How safe are they?
Unfortunately, this question cannot yet be comprehensively answered either way. So far, according to the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE), there is very little evidence that suggests e-cigarettes are likely to cause any harm. If you are a teenager, who hasn’t ever smoked before and decide to give vaping a go, then no it’s probably not going to do you much good, but if you are a heavy smoker, using e-cigarettes as a means of cutting down and to hopefully quit smoking entirely, then vaping could well be the answer. Recent guidelines from NICE advocate the use of licensed nicotine products, such as nicotine patches, gum and sprays, as quitting methods, but because the safety of e-cigarettes is still very much in debate, they cannot advise their use until further safety research has been carried out and substantial evidence is recorded. One thing that must be remembered is that nicotine is ultimately not the baddie in all of this. Yes, nicotine is the drug that causes people to become addicted to smoking, but what causes health issues is the toxins and carcinogens that are inhaled from traditional cigarettes. E-cigarettes do not contain these harmful chemicals and is ultimately one of the reasons why some health authorities consider them the better option.
One of the big concerns surrounding e-cigarettes is that they are currently unregulated in the UK, so their safety and quality cannot be guaranteed. However, by 2017 this is due to all change, as the European Union Tobacco Products Directive will come into effect and restrictions will be placed on all e-cigarettes. New rules will be set on packaging and labelling to ensure users know exactly what is contained in them as well as the potential risks associated with using an e-cigarette. Until then the UK government has said it will work towards licensing nicotine containing products as medicinal products. You can find up to date information about the regulation of e-cigarettes at MHRA and the European Commission.
Obviously, the best thing for all smokers is to give up smoking entirely. It will not only improve your health and lengthen your life, it will also save you a lot of money! October sees the PHE’s Stoptober campaign come into play, which encourages thousands of smokers to quit with the line, ‘stop smoking for 28 days and you’re 5 times more likely to stop for good’. There are also plenty of online forums and groups that give advice about quitting smoking and also give you the ability to connect with others who are trying to quit. The NHS offer a local Stop Smoking Service, which lists local support groups that are made up of both experts and ex-smokers and offer free one-to-one support.
In conclusion, the safety of e-cigarettes is very much still up in the air, but perhaps what we must take into account is that at present people are willing to gamble with their health by smoking regular cigarettes. So, yes, even though we don’t yet know of any conclusive health risks associated with e-cigarettes, what we do know is that they don’t contain the harmful toxins found in regular cigarettes. On that basis alone, it must be accepted that once e-cigarettes are properly regulated, they could be the precious tools to help smokers quit for good.