‘Vaping as bad as fags’ howls the front page of the Sun today. It is a strange headline to run since nobody quoted in the story says anything of the sort. On the contrary, the article is full of experts explaining that vaping is very much safer than smoking. For example, Deborah Arnott of Action on Smoking and Health says that e-cigarettes are ‘much safer than tobacco’ and Rosanna O’Connor from Public Health England is quoted as saying ‘Vaping carries a fraction of the risk of smoking.’
These comments are in line with the review of the scientific evidence published by Public Health England which concluded that e-cigarettes are ‘around 95 per cent less harmful than tobacco’. This was confirmed earlier this year in a review by the Royal College of Physicians which concluded that ‘the possibility of some harm from long-term e-cigarette use cannot be dismissed due to inhalation of the ingredients other than nicotine, but is likely to be very small, and substantially smaller than that arising from tobacco smoking’.
What new evidence has the Sun found to contradict this? Its story is based on comments made at a cardiology conference by a Greek doctor, Charalambos Vlachopoulos, who published a study in June looking at the effect of vaping on blood pressure and blood vessels. The study found that e-cigarettes cause arterial stiffness which, as Dr Michael Siegel notes on his blog, is hardly surprising since nicotine causes arterial stiffness. So does drinking coffee, taking an exam and watching football.
That does not mean that caffeine and the World Cup are as bad as smoking. Nor does Dr Vlachopoulos claim that vaping is as bad as smoking. The Sun quotes him saying: ‘E-cigarettes are less harmful than traditional cigarettes but they are not harmless.’ No serious researcher has ever claimed that they are harmless. That is why we talk about harm reduction, not harm elimination. Few things in life are 100 per cent safe and even nicotine patches only reduce the harm; they, too, raise blood pressure.
The good doctor goes on to say that e-cigarettes are ‘far more dangerous than people realise’ and that he wouldn’t personally recommend them as a way to quit smoking. He is welcome to his opinion, but the claim that e-cigarettes are ‘more dangerous than people realise’ is not supported by his study nor by any other research. His study only confirms what we already know about nicotine. It tells us nothing about the long-term health effects and it certainly doesn’t show that the consequences of vaping are comparable to those of smoking.
Thanks to alarmist headlines like that on the front of today’s soaraway Sun, the likelihood is that e-cigarettes are actually safer than people realise. Despite the efforts of organisations like Public Health England and the Royal College of Physicians to inform the public, unfounded scare stories in the popular press have led to people becoming more ignorant about the relative risks of vaping and smoking over time. As a result, smokers have increasingly taken a ‘better the devil you know’ approach and stuck with tobacco.
How many smokers will see the Sun‘s irresponsible front page today and conclude that there is no point in switching? Some vapers may even decide to go back to cigarettes. A decade after e-cigarettes hit the shelves, public understanding about the risks of vaping is going backwards.