Respiratory expert Dr Nicholas Hopkinson gives his verdict on vaping and e-cigarettes.
By Anna Bonet
Following a spate of vaping-related deaths, US President Donald Trump has announced plans to finalise a complete ban on flavoured e-cigarettes across America, and US health experts are advising people to avoid vaping products altogether until the cause is clear.
No similar deaths have been reported in the UK. Backing vaping is part of the NHS’ Smokefree strategy, which claims e-cigarettes has helped 1.5 million people quit smoking and that vaping is 95 per cent less harmful than traditional smoking.
Last month, two NHS hospitals even opened vape shops as part of an initiative to help more people stop smoking tobacco products. So is vaping really the secret killer, or should we listen to the health experts?
Vaping is a contentious issue. It doesn’t help that international media coverage and various health studies seem to contradict each other – while some reports state that it’s a great deal safer than smoking, others suggest that e-cigarettes are packed full of dangerous chemicals and should be avoided at all costs.
We speak to Dr Nicholas Hopkinson, honorary respiratory consultant and clinical lead for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at Royal Brompton Hospital, about the dangers of e-cigarettes and smoking cessation:
Is vaping safe?
E-cigarettes are designed for people who are addicted to nicotine through smoking to get their nicotine fix – minus the harmful effects of cigarettes. Traditional cigarettes come with a number of major health concerns, including increasing your risk of cancer, heart disease and stroke, while vaping is said to come with significantly less risk.
‘Vaping is much safer than smoking,’ says Dr Hopkinson. ‘We know that because the toxic chemicals that are present in cigarette smoke are either not present in vape, or are present at a much lower level.’
Vaping is safer than smoking because toxic chemicals present in cigarette smoke are much lower.
A recent cross-sectional study published in the peer-reviewed journal Annals of Internal Medicine tested the breath, saliva and urine samples of 181 participants, some of whom smoked cigarettes, others who vaped.
The results showed that there were significantly lower cancer-causing chemicals present in those who vaped. ‘People who use e-cigarettes to quit smoking will get a substantial health benefit,’ says Dr Hopkinson.
What are the dangers of vaping?
While vaping has been proven to work effectively as a tool for smoking cessation, e-cigarettes are not completely harmless. The main issue with vaping and e-cigarettes is that, as a relatively new form of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), health experts don’t yet know enough about the long-term health risks.
We don’t know for certain whether vaping will cause some harm in the long term.
‘It’s absolutely true that we don’t know for certain whether vaping will cause some harm in the long term,’ says Dr Hopkinson. ‘So, it’s important for scientists to work that out and work out what aspect of vaping might be particularly harmful. Maybe certain chemicals are worse than others, so it’s important they’re weeded out.’
‘It’s likely that long-term vaping is going to cause some harm, so that’s why it’s important we don’t have non-smokers taking it up,’ adds Dr Hopkinson.
💡 Public Health England (PHE) have published an independent expert e-cigarettes evidence review, stating that vaping poses a small fraction of the risks of smoking.
There’s also the concern that vaping could act as a gateway drug, and young people who try vaping are more likely to then start smoking tobacco. However, Dr Hopkinson argues that peer effect produces the highest risk of cigarette uptake. ‘The risk of becoming a smoker if you try smoking is extremely high, so you have to think about these things in context,’ he says.
While we don’t yet know the long-term health implications of vaping, studies have shown that e-cigarettes are an effective tool to quit smoking, and not nearly as dangerous as smoking tobacco cigarettes.
The straightforward message is that e-cigarettes are a positive attribute for smokers only.
However, non-smokers should not take up vaping. The straightforward message is that e-cigarettes are a positive attribute for smokers only.
According to Dr Hopkinson, smokers should be encouraged to use vaping as a form of NRT to help them quit, ‘but you’d then encourage them to try and quit vaping too – though not at the expense of going back to smoking.’
‘Ultimately, vaping might be better than smoking,’ says Dr Hopkinson, ‘but it’s not as good as fresh air!’