The UK is still without a doubt one of the most friendly countries when it comes to e-cigarettes and vaping. There are currently no laws preventing or restricting their use in public places. However we are increasingly finding that vaping is being treated the same as smoking by many indoor establishments and even outdoor places such as railways stations and attractions.
I would always encourage people to be respectful when using e-cigarettes around others but is it right that we are often treated the same as smokers? What effect might that be having on both public perception and the choices smokers could make?
A study by Cancer Research UK back in 2016 concluded that 'there’s no evidence that second-hand e-cigarette vapour is dangerous to others.' A year later evidence that clearly shows that it isn't harmful or dangerous came out from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) who confirmed that second-hand vapour produced by e-cigarettes is 'Harmless'. Government officials from CDPH ran tests on non-ventilated vape shops to try and identify any toxic substances that might be present in the air (which as you may know from visiting some vape shops can be quite cloudy!). After testing for over 20 chemicals that they suspected may be present all tests came back negative. It would seem from these tests that even in unventilated confined spaces there is no danger at all from breathing in second-hand vapour.
To those of us that have been using nicotine vapour products for years this may not be a surprise but it's a fact that seems to be largely ignored and always under-reported. I fully accept that vaping may not be appropriate in certain places or situations but to treat it the same as smoking is wrong and misleading. We (rightly) stopped people smoking in pubs and clubs to protect the health of those that did not smoke. What reason are we stopping people vaping in these situations? Clubs and music venues are often full of 'artificial smoke' from smoke machines, what difference is a little more from a handful of e-cigarette users going to make?
Most importantly allowing people to use an e-cigarette inside a club, music venue or pub might make smokers decide to try a vapour product for the first time. If just a percentage of those people go on to become ex-smokers and to continue to use an e-cigarette then we would be improving the health of many. People need encouragement and incentives to switch, smokers will often ignore the health aspect until it's too late … and I speak from experience. If you don't have to go outside and stand in the alleyway on a cold night around a bunch of people smoking then vaping becomes a lot more attractive. If they have to do that anyway .. they might just not bother.
We all understand the risk to our health that smoking poses, but for many smokers that isn't enough to make them stop or switch to a less harmful way to get their nicotine. We have the tools to help them do it but we aren't doing enough. When a smoker sees 'no smoking or e-cigarettes' signs everywhere is it any wonder that they believe that smoking and vaping are, for all intents and purposes, the same thing?
In a Public Health England report, it was found that the number of smokers who think vaping is as dangerous or more dangerous than smoking has risen from 36% in 2014 to a staggering 53% in 2020. I'll let that sink in for a moment. The majority, most people, think vaping is as dangerous as smoking. Less than a third of the public questioned believe that vaping is less harmful than smoking and 40 per cent still believe that nicotine causes cancer. (it doesn't, just in case that isn't clear). Why do we appear to be going backwards?
It would be easy to say that the government, charities, and companies need to do more to get the facts out there, but in many cases and at many times I feel they are doing more than we might expect. I'm always referencing cancer charities, PHE and various other public information bodies in this blog. Yet so many people continue have a perception of vaping that is at direct odds with the scientific evidence... and those perceptions appear to be growing. Is it any wonder that people still see it as 'smoking' and harmful when it's often treated the same? “If it's not harmful and no danger to people around, why wouldn't you be able to vape on an open air train platform?” they might well ask. Treating vaping then same as smoking gives the public a dangerously inflated sense of risk in some cases to the point that they would rather stand next to someone smoking than someone vaping.
If we are being asked not to use a vaping device then it needs to be made clear to everyone that those reasons aren't because of health risks to others. We cannot continue with these blanket 'No Smoking, No Vaping' policies. In all cases and situations vaping should be considered on its own. If it isn't then it will continue to send the message to smokers and non-smokers that they are basically the same thing and are disallowed for the same reasons. Second-hand vapour does not pose a risk and is not linked to causing any illnesses, so isn't it only fair and right that I know and understand the reasons I am being asked to refrain?
At its peak there were almost 4 million vapers in the UK, it's now dropped to almost 3 million. Some of those people will have given up nicotine use altogether and some will have sadly died. I don't know all the reasons why the uptake has slowed over recent years but I do know that 4 years ago I was welcome to use an e-cigarette with a little discretion (ie not blowing massive clouds that fill the whole place) in most pubs in my home town. Today that 'most' has fallen to just a couple. I'm also finding myself frequently being asked not to vape in very open, outdoor places, which I really struggle to understand.
Advocates for harm reduction are pushing for vaping to be made more attractive and accessible to smokers. A good part of that attractiveness, I would argue, is being able to vape freely in places where you cannot smoke. The more that barriers are put up to where we can and cannot consume nicotine in a safe manner, the more smokers will see less value in making the switch to an e-cigarette.
Vaping has the potential to make the combustible cigarette completely obsolete. Yet it still feels that we live in a country where vaping is frowned upon, treated the same as smoking and something we are more than often being asked not to do. Is that the kind of encouragement smokers need to switch to an e-cigarette?