The great debate

Pros and cons of vaping

Health experts warn UK could ‘sleepwalk’ into public health ‘catastrophe’ due to e-cigs

Many smokers and non-smokers have taken up vaping in the almost 20 years since the devices were first invented.

The range of e-cigarette devices on offer now has expanded hugely. Pens, pods and disposable vapes are all commonly available, often in a range of flavour options, and they can be cheaper than smoking. 

But some health experts have warned that not enough is known about the harmful effects of vaping. Professor Andrew Bush, a consultant paediatric chest physician, told The Guardian last month of his concern that the UK could be “sleepwalking into a public health catastrophe” as the number of young people getting “hooked on nicotine” rises as a result of vaping. 

Here are some of the main arguments for and against the use of e-cigarettes.


Pro: better than cigarettes

E-cigarettes do not produce tar or carbon monoxide, “two of the most harmful elements” of inhaling tobacco smoke, said the NHS. Studies have found that, for cigarette smokers, switching to e-cigarettes have improved vascular health, and the lung function of asthma patients

In 2015, Public Health England (PHE) said that e-cigarettes were estimated to be around 95% less harmful than smoking. A review into evidence on vaping safety is due to be published by PHE this year.


Con: harmful substances

“No one is claiming that e-cigarettes are completely risk free,” said senior lecturer Caitlin Notley and research associate Konstantinos Farsalinos at The Conversation. E-cigarettes don’t contain tobacco but many contain nicotine, the addictive substance that’s in cigarettes and cigars, as well as other toxins. 

Vapes also do not create “a vapour”, as many people believe, but rather an aerosol “made up of tiny particles”, said the American Cancer Society.

And “inhaling anything into the lung may result in changes to DNA”, The Conversation authors continued, which could then increase the future risk of developing a disease. 


Pro: help to stop addiction

Smokers are often physically dependent on nicotine, and may suffer “unpleasant withdrawal symptoms and experience cravings” if they try to quit, said Notley and Farsalinos.

Using a vape has been shown to have some of the highest success rates among people quitting smoking, at around 60% to 74% in 2019 to 2020, according to PHE.

And vaping, combined with “behavioural support” from stop-smoking services, has been found to help people effectively kick their habit, said Cancer Research UK


Con: appealing to teens

Selling e-cigarettes to anyone under the age of 18 in the UK is illegal, but the BBC said it was aware of rising numbers of complaints over “illicit vapes”. The findings of a survey conducted by YouGov for the charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) found that in 2022, 7% of people aged 11 to 17 reported that they vaped, up from 4% in 2020. 

“Colourful, sweet-flavoured” vaping devices are becoming increasingly popular with teens, said the BBC, and some secondary school teachers say that it’s becoming a problem among students. ASH’s survey findings indicated that 21% of young smokers used e-cigarettes because they liked the flavours.

In June, the EU proposed a ban on products that offer e-cigarette devices in flavours like “bubblegum, strawberry, and popcorn”, which could “entice” people into vaping, said The Mirror.


Pro: no secondhand smoke

The NHS says there is no evidence that vaping harms people around you, unlike smoking. 

However, the World Health Organization warns that the aerosols generated by e-cigarettes – or electronic nicotine delivery systems – raise the concentration of “particulate matter” in indoor spaces, containing nicotine and other potentially harmful substances. 

Secondhand vape “may seem like no big deal, but don’t let those sweet aromas fool you”, said Healthline. The site advises vaping outdoors, and away from high-risk individuals including pregnant people and those with lung conditions to reduce potential health risks.


Con: can lead to smoking

A review by the Australian National University published this year found that non-smokers were three times as likely to take up smoking if they used e-cigarettes, compared to those who didn’t. 

“This is a dream for tobacco companies and their retail allies,” said senior lecturer Paul Grogan and professor of respiratory medicine Guy Marks, writing at The Conversation.

Similar conclusions had previously been made in a nationally representative study in the US. Published by JAMA Network in 2019, it found that young people who vaped were four times more likely to go on to smoke cigarettes compared to those who had never used e-cigarettes. 

However Cancer Research UK says “there’s no strong evidence for a gateway effect” in the UK.


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