17 August 2018
The latest on e-cigarettes
Graeme, our research communications officer, explains some of the latest developments on e-cigarettes.
Often when we talk about risks to health, it can be confusing as to what types of advice to follow. There is so much information available on the best way to look after ourselves in the digital age. Sometimes, people can be left bewildered about which products are beneficial to our health and which are harmful.
Take e-cigarettes, for example. In mid-August, a new scientific study, funded by the British Lung Foundation, has found some evidence that e-cigarettes might be damaging lung cells in a similar way to that observed in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Shortly after this study was published, a committee of MPs published a report citing statistics from Public Health England that suggest that e-cigarettes are 95% less harmful than ordinary cigarettes.
At first glance, you could be forgiven for finding it difficult to understand how these statements could both be true. How can e-cigarettes be less harmful than tobacco, when using them appears to cause the same damage to the lungs that you would get from smoking ordinary cigarettes?
Let’s be clear – no-one is suggesting that e-cigarettes are entirely safe and risk-free. When you smoke, or use an e-cigarette, you are heating up or burning substances which you inhale into your body.
The scientists at the University of Birmingham, where the study was conducted, tested the kinds of liquid used in vaping cartridges by heating them up and adding them to cells in the lungs which help protect against infection. The results suggested that the heated-up liquid reduced the cells’ ability to protect the lungs, which could expose the lungs to many different types of harmful disease-causing bacteria.
On the face of it, for people with healthy lungs, taking up vaping or using an e-cigarette could cause health problems later in life, though more research is needed to understand what would happen if you decided to use an e-cigarette over many years.
What's in e-cigarettes?
Although e-cigarettes contain nicotine, the vapour that they produce does not contain tar and many of the other harmful chemicals in conventional cigarettes. Ordinary cigarettes contain over 5,000 chemicals, at least 250 of which are known to be harmful and more than 70 of which are carcinogenic.
Half of all smokers will die from a smoking-related disease, such as lung cancer or COPD. In those circumstances, giving up smoking is a matter of life or death and stopping smoking entirely is the best thing you can do to improve your lung health.
Why are people using e-cigarettes to quit?
Many people would want to turn to their local NHS service or GP for help to stop smoking, and for many people, this option helps them to kick the habit. However, many NHS services are reducing access to clinically-effective prescription drugs to replace nicotine addiction, so people who want to stop smoking may find that the help they need isn’t available in their local health service and simply doesn’t meet their needs.
It is in these circumstances that the use of e-cigarettes could save someone’s life. They contain much fewer harmful chemicals that damage the lungs and at much lower levels than cigarettes. Using them instead of conventional tobacco products could therefore help someone quit smoking.
Evidence suggests that e-cigarettes can help when all other methods of nicotine replacement therapy have failed to help someone beat their addiction.
That’s why parliament’s science and technology committee has recommended that regulations on e-cigarettes reflect their use as a smoking cessation aid, while discouraging new use of e-cigarettes by young people and keeping an eye on new evidence on the risks of using e-cigarettes over the long term.
E-cigarettes are an important tool in reducing the number of smokers
The only way to ensure that we improve lung health for everyone in the UK is to constantly gather and review scientific evidence and have an honest and open dialogue on reducing tobacco use. E-cigarettes are an important tool in bringing down the number of active smokers, but they should not be mistaken as a long-term replacement for smoking cigarettes, or as a harm-free alternative to taking up smoking.
We’ll continue to support research which helps us understand the full picture on the risks of using e-cigarettes, whilst at the same time ensuring that those who need help to quit urgently are able to use e-cigarettes if they need to.
Vaping may be less harmful than smoking, that doesn’t make it harmless. It is not advised for non-smokers.