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Misconceptions About E-Cigarette Safety Could Be Stopping Smokers from Quitting, Recent UK Report Finds

Public Health England recently released its latest report on electronic cigarettes, reinforcing their previous conclusions that electronic cigarettes are less harmful than tobacco cigarettes, and can help smokers quit. However, one of their most disturbing findings was that, despite growing scientific evidence that vaping is considerably less harmful than smoking tobacco, public perception regarding the safety of electronic cigarettes has gotten worse over the years.

We’ve already gone through most of the health-related findings in this latest report from Public Health England in previous articles, although it does highlight a few interesting studies that I for one was not familiar with, one that tried to calculate the difference in cancer risk for smoking and vaping for the first time, by analyzing the chemicals released from tobacco cigarettes and e-cigarettes, and 2 other studies of biomarker data for acrolein, a potent respiratory irritant.

The first study estimated that the lifetime cancer risk for e-cigarette use could be 100 times lower than that of smoking, with authors concluding that the risk of cancer from vaping was under 0.5% that of smoking. The studies of biomarker data for acrolein in e-cigarette users found traces amounts consistent with non-smoking levels.

“Vaping poses only a small fraction of the risks of smoking and switching completely from smoking to vaping conveys substantial health benefits over continued smoking,” the Public Health England report states. “Based on current knowledge, stating that vaping is at least 95% less harmful than smoking remains a good way to communicate the large difference in relative risk unambiguously so that more smokers are encouraged to make the switch from smoking to vaping. It should be noted that this does not mean e-cigarettes are safe.”

But despite mounting evidence that electronic cigarettes are considerably less harmful than tobacco cigarettes, even in the long-term, public perception is somehow worsening with each passing year. From 2013 to 2017, nearly four times as many adults thought that e-cigarettes were as harmful, or more harmful, than smoking (7% in 2013 to 26% in 2017). The Public Health England report found that:

– only half of smokers believe that e-cigarettes are less harmful than smoking and this decreases to one third among smokers who have never tried e-cigarettes;

– in contrast to evidence to date, it appears that a majority of smokers and ex-smokers does not think that complete replacement of cigarettes with e-cigarettes would lead to major health benefits;

– only half of all adult smokers believe that nicotine replacement therapy is any less harmful than smoking.

In addition, only 8 to 9 percent of UK adults know that most health harms from smoking are not caused by nicotine, but by combustion by-products like carbon monoxide and tar, neither of which are produced by electronic cigarettes.

“It would be tragic if thousands of smokers who could quit with the help of an e-cigarette are being put off due to false fears about their safety,” Professor John Newton, Director for Health Improvement at Public Health England, said.

So why has this been happening? Well, as we’ve reported in the past, media plays a big role, and the report itself also mentions that “reporting of some academic studies has been misleading”. Basically, more often than not, news sites put a negative spin on scientific studies, or conveniently take findings out of context and create the impression that vaping is as dangerous, if not more so than smoking cigarettes.

Unfortunately, with vaping threatening to disrupt multiple industries as well as threaten national budgets, of which tobacco taxes are a huge chunk, we’re likely to see a lot of misinformation and negative propaganda moving forward.

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