Are UK smokers being misinformed about e-cigs? Evidence suggests they are..


Smokers in the UK have a series of false beliefs about e-cigarettes, including that they could be as dangerous as, or even more dangerous than, tobacco cigarettes, a report by ASH UK has shown. As in the US, data shows that there is an increasing number of former and current smokers who vape – most probably in an attempt to quit smoking – but that the formerly encouraging rise in e-cig use among smokers has stalled. This is the first time that this has happened since the start of the ASH surveys in 2010. Statisticians have concluded that frequent and misleading statements on e-cigarettes are making smokers turn away from e-cigarettes when attempting to give up their nicotine addiction.

The Basic data

  • Estimates by ASH suggest that there are more than 2.5 million vapers currently in the UK, and the e-cigarettes are used by around 1.1 million former smokers (the majority of whom gave up smoking using this method), and around 1.5 million current smokers.
  • Non-smokers turning to e-cigarettes is an uncommon situation, with only 0.2% of current vapers between 2013 and 2015 being former non-smokers.
  • Vaping has previously risen steadily among smokers, going from 2.7% in 2010 to around 17.5% in 2014, but there has been no rise between 2014 and 2015.
  • There has been a rise in the numbers of people who believe that vaping comes with a risk of harm. In 2013, around 43% of those surveyed thought that vaping was a safer alternative to smoking, and 52% think this is the case in 2015, with a low 2% thinking that vaping is totally harmless. However, there has been a rise in the number of those who think that vaping can be harmful, with 22% believing it is equal to, or even more harmful than, smoking.
  • Among smokers who have not yet tried vaping, nearly a quarter think that vaping has no better effect on health than smoking, and some even think that it is worse than smoking. Calculating from these estimates, it is suggested that around 900,000 current smokers in the UK have not tried vaping, and are less likely to because they are misinformed about the risks and benefits of vaping.

Trends in Vaping across the UK

ASH started their surveys in order to monitor trends and changes in the use of E-cigarettes in the UK. Previous surveys have confirmed, for example, that e-cig use among adults and children who have never smoked is very rare. The surveys concentrate upon adults, and collect additional data showing a composite picture of e-cigarette vaping trends in the UK. Conducted through YouGov, the most recent data was collected in the first three months of the year, and sampled 12,000 adults.

Numbers of vapers that those who still smoke

In 2015, as might be expected, the majority of smokers and former smokers had heard of e-cigs (95 percent and 93 percent), and it is also estimated that there are more than 2.5 million vapers in the UK. Current vapers consist of 1.1 million, or 42%, ex-smokers, including many who quit through e-cigarette use, and 1.4 million, or 54%, who are current smokers.

This increase in e-cigarette use, including the rise from 2.1 million in 2014, has been attributed almost totally to the rising numbers of former smokers who are currently vaping. This suggests that significant numbers of smokers are making a successful switch. This year, the use of e-cigs by those who have never smoked remains at its low point, moving from 0.1% in 2012 to the current percentage of 0,2. A greater number of never smokers have tried vaping, from 0.5% in 2012 to a larger 1.5% in the current year, but continual use is still extremely rare.

Concerning the most important group for vaping statistics, current smokers, previous increases from 2.7% in 2010 to 17.6% in 2014, have come to a halt. There has been no increase at all in the 2014-2015 year. A larger percentage of smokers have tried e-cigs, up from 50.6 percent in 2014 to a larger 58.8% in 2015, but the rate of current use has remained static.

Reasons for the changes

One of the biggest reasons for these changes is an increase in the perception of risk from vaping. The perception of e-cigarette harm appears to have risen between 2013 and 2015, and this is particularly the case among those smokers who have no previous experience of vaping. However, there are also some positive indications that there is a rise in the number of people who believe that vaping is less harmful than smoking tobacco cigarettes, with a rise from 43% to 52.5. Also, the number that incorrectly think that e-cigarette smoking is completely harmless has dropped from more than 10% in 2013 to only 2% in the current year. The number of people saying that they don’t know about the benefits or disadvantages of e-cigarettes has also fallen, from nearly 40% to only 23%.

The most shocking statistic is still the news that many people believe that e-cigarettes are as harmful as tobacco cigarettes. This has risen from only 6% to a whopping 20%. This belief is thought to reflect misleading information from the media and from others who should know the truth. The percentage of people who believe that vaping is now more harmful than smoking has also increased, from just 1.4% to around 2.3%. These totals suggest that around 22% of those surveyed believe that e-cigarettes could be as harmful, or even more harmful, when compared to tobacco cigarettes. This is much higher than the 2013 figure of just 7.5%, despite the fact that there has been no evidence to support these beliefs.

Worse, the survey has shown increasing scepticism among smokers who have not previously tried vaping. The percentage of current smokers who believe that vaping is as harmful, or even more harmful, than tobacco cigarettes has risen from 12% to 22% within the last year. That means that more than one fifth of all smokers who have never previously experience vaping, the very people whose lives might be saved by vaping, have come to believe that e-cigarettes are as bad or worse than smoking, despite there being no evidence for this.

Could this misinformation be costing lives?

Evidence suggests that around 10 million people in the UK currently smoke. Of this percentage, nearly 60% have tried e-cigarettes. This leaves more than 4 million smokers who have not had any experience of vaping. With the evidence of the survey, this means that around 900,000 smokers hold the belief that changing to e-cigarettes would be just as bad as smoking, or could be worse. With these beliefs, there is no reason for them to give up tobacco cigarettes.

Despite popular belief, the rates of smoking are not reducing very quickly. In 2002, 26% of the population were smokers, and in 2012, 20% were smokers. The latest information from Smoking in England suggests that the smoking rate has been in decline by only 0.7% between 2010 and 2015. This is roughly on par with the trend from 2002 to 2012. With this evidence, people need to ask whether, of those 900,000 who have believed misleading information about vaping, and as a result have not tried it, what number of those could still be smoking in a decade’s time? How many in two decades’ time? Of these smokers, what percentage will die because they have not been able to quit?

The answer is not an easy one to consider, but the slow decline of smoking rates mean that a substantial number of current smokers will continue, with the result that up to 50% of them will die prematurely. This is a direct result of the lack of quitting access, since most options don’t work for most smokers.

The next question must be: what if the smokers were not misled about vaping? As with a number of former smokers, including those who have failed to quit previously, a good percentage of them would choose to make the switch, or at least give it a shot. This means that some of the 900,000 would give up smoking as a result of vaping. The most important point about vaping is that it offers an additional option for current smokers who want to quit. Vaping is unlike another other alternative, and can be an additional tool which doctors can use to lower the overall smoking rate. Preventing people from vaping is discarding this useful tool without any good reason.

Anyone who is keen to reduce the smoking rate – if they have some good sense and empathy for struggling smokers – should be encouraging current smokers to at least try vaping, in order to increase the totals who have succeeded in quitting. However, for some reason, many anti-smoking bodies have chosen to do the opposite, and the consequences of this can be calculated in smoking-related deaths.

Misinforming people about vaping is harmful

Dr Leonie Brose, from King’s College London, makes this fact obvious: “We must clearly communicate the relative safety of e-cigarettes to smokers. The proven harm of tobacco [cigarettes] is currently receiving less coverage than the smaller and less certain harm from e-cigarettes. We owe it to smokers to give them accurate information”.

The final conclusion is this: if you don’t want smokers to die, it is vital to keep to the scientific evidence when you are talking about e-cigarettes. However, that is not what happens. Rather, the hypothetical risks are overstated, and are not considered when compared with tobacco cigarettes. It could be that this is done through ignorance of the situation, or stupidity, but the more that these risks are over-reported, the far less compelling any reason appears to be.

Everyone should recognise that those who mislead the public, including current smokers, about the reduced harm alternatives to smoking such as smokeless tobacco and e-cigs as despicable human beings. They might hate smoking, but there is no reason to deceive smokers about reducing the mark from smoking, even if there is a passing resemblance to smoking in the alternatives. Hopefully, some of these 900,000 smokers in the UK will realise that they are being mislead, and choose to try vaping for themselves. If they don’t, well because we care about people, hopefully they will manage to stop smoking using one of the other methods of quitting, before they become ill.


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