In a much-anticipated update from the Office of Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID), the British health agency released its eighth and final independent report on the health risks and effects of vaping.
A team of researchers at King’s College London produced the landmark report, which was first commissioned in 2015 by Public Health England (PHE) and now by OHID. What they found was that vaping is, by and large, significantly safer than smoking. This difference was evident in both the short and medium term – the two time periods that received the most study. Researchers found that alternative nicotine delivery devices (ANDS) – electronic delivery systems that include vape products – can “play a vital role in reducing the huge health burden caused by cigarette smoking.” They note that while not completely risk-free, these devices consistently expose users to lower levels of dangerous carcinogens than do traditional tobacco products.
The researchers used a variety of randomized trials to examine how smoking and vaping impacted user’ body biomarkers – measurements of toxicant exposure – which “cut across common diseases and those that are disease-specific.” In addition, they relied upon numerous case studies and peer-reviewed literature to supplement their work. Using this information, researchers were able to determine “that vaping poses only a small fraction of the risks of smoking.”
These findings align with other academic research on the subject, which has found that cigarettes and cigars produce higher amounts of harmful chemicals due to the process of igniting and burning tobacco. In contrast, vape products don’t utilize the combustion process. Instead, an electrically powered coil heats up a flavored liquid and converts it into an aerosol that the user can then inhale. These differences mean vapor products tend to lead to fewer negative health effects in users, such as respiratory issues, than do traditional tobacco products.
One recent study by researchers at Georgetown University found that as many as 6.6 million American lives could be saved over the next decade if American smokers switched from traditional cigarettes to e-cigarettes.
A substantial proportion of the general public in both the U.K. and U.S. remain misinformed about the role vape products can play in harm reduction and cessation treatments. According to 2021 Smoking Toolkit Study (STS) data, just over a third (34.1%) of adult smokers in Britain accurately reported vaping as being less harmful than smoking. Almost an equal amount (32.1%) reported these products produced the same health outcomes, with some (11.9%) even reporting that vaping was “more harmful.” Similar misconceptions exist in the U.S. For instance, a 2019 Reuters/Ipsos poll on the subject found that 63% of American adults disagreed with the statement “vaping is healthier than traditional cigarettes,” a nearly 16 point increase from a similar poll three years prior.
These misconceptions carry real-life consequences for millions of people. Relying on inaccurate or incomplete information can drive people to make choices they would not otherwise make. Just so, current misconceptions about vaping drive behavior changes that’s not in the best interest of public or individual health. For instance, if a smoker falsely believes that cigarettes are no more harmful than e-cigarettes, they may choose to stay with what’s most comfortable.
Governments have a role to play in preventing these sorts of misconceptions. Sadly, they often do more harm than good by perpetuating the myth that all tobacco and vape products are equally harmful. This mistake usually looks like a public information campaign that fails to differentiate between products and naively insists upon complete abstinence. While smoking nothing at all is obviously preferable to using any tobacco product, this expectation is neither realistic nor desirable for many nicotine users. Rather, millions of people continue to smoke daily, and that’s unlikely to change in the near future.
The best thing we can do for smokers is to meet them where they’re at and provide them with the tools they need to transition away from the most harmful products on the market. Perhaps the most important tool we have at our disposal is accurate information.
Moving forward, the U.S. must begin describing tobacco products as existing along a continuum of risk, with some products being significantly more harmful than others. This framing will require highlighting important new studies like this new OHID report that describes the role vaping can play in harm reduction. It’ll also require a change of priorities and tone by some of the U.S.’s largest federal agencies like the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). This shift will not happen overnight, but the process can begin now, and it must happen quickly if we are to save lives and protect public welfare.