Michael Mosley

Why vap­ing is bet­ter than smok­ing.

Focus-Science and Technology - - CONTENTS - Michael Mosley is a sci­ence writer and broad­caster, who presents Trust Me, I’m A Doc­tor on BBC Two. His lat­est book is The Clever Guts Diet (£8.99, Short Books).

One of the most en­cour­ag­ing sta­tis­tics I’ve seen re­cently has been the fall in smok­ing rates, down to an all-time low of 14.9 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion. There are many rea­sons for this, but among the most sig­nif­i­cant has been the rise in vap­ing. Vap­ing has taken off thanks to an ap­proach by the UK gov­ern­ment which has kept taxes low and al­lowed a mar­ket in vap­ing de­vices to flour­ish. There are ru­mours that taxes on vap­ing could be in­creased in the au­tumn. Health-wise, that could prove un­for­tu­nate.

I first came across e-cig­a­rettes when I was asked to make a pro­gramme for Hori­zon. As part of the doc­u­men­tary, I took up heavy vap­ing. I have never smoked any­thing be­fore and I wanted to see what ef­fects in­hal­ing nico­tine in the form of an e-cig would have on a non­smoker. Fans of e-cig­a­rettes say vap­ing makes it eas­ier for smok­ers to quit by pro­vid­ing a safer way to get a nico­tine hit. Crit­ics say we are gam­bling with a tech­nol­ogy we don’t un­der­stand and that it may en­cour­age non-smok­ers to start. So, who’s right? A study for Pub­lic Health Eng­land con­cluded that e-cig­a­rettes are 95 per cent less harm­ful than nor­mal cig­a­rettes. The re­port also found that in­creas­ing numbers of peo­ple think e-cig­a­rettes are as harm­ful, or per­haps more harm­ful, than smok­ing.

Why are peo­ple wor­ried? Per­haps be­cause of a spate of fear-in­duc­ing news­pa­per sto­ries, such as a US study which inspired this head­line: “Elec­tronic cig­a­rettes in­duce DNA strand breaks and cell death”. In the study, researchers took hu­man cells and ex­posed them to e-cig vapour for a cou­ple of months. They found that some of the cells showed signs of DNA dam­age, the sort that can “set the stage for can­cer”. Scary stuff. The lead re­searcher was quoted as say­ing that e-cig­a­rettes, “are no bet­ter than smok­ing reg­u­lar cig­a­rettes”.

What the researchers didn’t make clear was that they’d also ex­posed sim­i­lar hu­man cells to to­bacco smoke. All the cells ex­posed to to­bacco smoke died within 24 hours. Which, to me, looks like pretty com­pelling ev­i­dence that e-ci­garette vapour is far less harm­ful.

When I took up vap­ing, I was con­cerned about was get­ting hooked on nico­tine. Yet as I puffed away, noth­ing hap­pened. When I leapt out of bed I didn’t feel a long­ing to reach for my ma­chine. After chat­ting to ex­perts, I dis­cov­ered that al­though cig­a­rettes are highly ad­dic­tive, nico­tine alone may not be. No one knows for sure why this is, but re­search in an­i­mals sug­gests that nico­tine is more ad­dic­tive when de­liv­ered with the other chem­i­cals found in reg­u­lar cig­a­rettes. But even so, the main jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for e-cig­a­rettes is that they can help those who are keen to quit smok­ing to­bacco, quit. So do they?

There have been few ran­domised con­trolled tri­als, but when Hori­zon con­ducted a small study where we ran­domly al­lo­cated a group of hard­core smok­ers to ei­ther e-cigs, nico­tine patches or go­ing cold turkey, we found the vapers and those who slapped on the patches were far more suc­cess­ful at aban­don­ing their fags.

E-cig­a­rettes are not risk-free. After a month of heavy vap­ing there were signs of in­flam­ma­tion in my lungs (which rapidly re­versed when I stopped), so I would never en­cour­age non-smok­ers to take it up. But look at the al­ter­na­tive. Glob­ally, a bil­lion peo­ple spend around £500bn a year on cig­a­rettes, and half of them will die of smok­ing-re­lated dis­eases. In the UK, smok­ing kills around 78,000 a year, a quar­ter of all deaths. Any­thing which gets peo­ple off cig­a­rettes is go­ing to save a lot of lives.


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