Many UK Smokers Are Misinformed About The Relative Risks of Vaping

Recent data have revealed that more UK smokers are misinformed abut the relative benfits of vapes nowadays than they used to be in the past.

Smokers in England are increasingly overestimating the risks associated with vaping compared to smoking, according to data from a Cancer Research UK-funded weekly survey. Conducted between 2014 to 2023, the study surveyed over 28,000 current smokers and revealed that in 2014, when vapes were still relatively new on the market, 44% of smokers believed vaping was less harmful than smoking, while 11% believed it was more harmful, 30% considered them equally harmful, and 15% did not know.

Sadly, by June 2023, the percentage of smokers who correctly believed that vaping was less harmful than smoking had dropped to 27%. While the percentage of people who believed they were more harmful, or equally harmful rose to 23% and 34% respectively, with those who did not know at 16%.

The misinformation epidemic is getting worse not better
The study revealed a notable shift in perceptions, with 57% of smokers now thinking that vaping is as harmful as or more harmful than smoking. The reasons behind this trend were not investigated in the study, but the the mixed messages the public is getting from local lawmakers and the media, is certainly a major contributing factor.

Last April, the UK announced that one million smokers will be given free vape kits to help them give up cigarettes. While a year earlier, the Office of Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID), has released a review on vaping in which it commends its benefits for public health.

The group reiterated that vaping is “at least 95 percent less harmful” than combustible tobacco and “poses only a small fraction of the risks of smoking.” The document also discussed the importance of flavours pointing to “evidence to suggest that non-tobacco flavours, particularly sweet flavours, may play a positive role in helping people switch from smoking to vaping.”

Fast forward to 2023, and local authorities starting raising the alarm about local teen vaping rates and started the process to ban disposable vapes. A study conducted by student news site The Tab reported that the prevalence of vaping among university students in the UK has more than doubled in the past year. Surveying over 6,000 undergraduates, the study revealed that 57% of students said they used disposable vapes regularly, a substantial rise from the previous figure of 27%.

Vaping rates need to be measures in relation to smoking rates
What this study, and the resulting media reports failed to mention is the well known fact that this rise in vaping has led to a parallel drop in smoking. In fact, the 2022 “Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use Among Young People in England 2021 report,” revealed that while one in five 15-year-old girls currently vaped, at 21%, as opposed to 10% in 2018, the proportion of pupils who reported being smokers has declined from 5% in 2018 to a record low of 3% in 2021.

In addition, less than one in eight secondary schoolchildren (12%) had ever smoked a cigarette in 2021, this is the lowest number recorded since 1982. Morever, data gathered from Smoking in England, a portal through which major findings from the Smoking Toolkit Study and other national data are made available to policy makers, clinicians, researchers, journalists and the general public, has found that e-cigarette use has remained relatively stable. “Use of e-cigarettes in adult population has remained relatively stable since late 2013.”

More importantly, in 2022, the UK’s Annual Population Survey (APS), reported that 12.9% of people aged 18 years and above, equating to approximately 6.4 million people, smoked cigarettes. A total of 14.6% of men smoked compared with 11.2% of women. The 12.9% rate is the lowest smoking rate ever recorded in the United Kingdom since rates started being recorded in 2011, and is being attributed to the arrival of vapes on the market during the same period.

ASH UK’s Facts Sheet
To this effect, the growing misinformation about vaping is nothing short of a tragedy for public health, as it must be stopping millions of smokers from swapping to a safer nicotine product which could actually save their life. In a bid to right these wrongs, ASH UK (Action on  Smoking and Health) has recently released a peer reviewed facts sheet about vaping. 

“This short brief is to aid responsible reporting of the evidence about vaping and

• Repetition of misconceptions as conventional wisdom;
• Overstating the evidence, with caveats downplayed or missed out;
• Presenting opinions as facts,” reads the opening paragraph of the facts sheet.