Why vaping is better than smoking.
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.
“GLOBALLY, A BILLION PEOPLE SPEND AROUND £500BN A YEAR ON CIGARETTES”