Behind the headlines

E-cigarettes could boost UK health, headlines claim

An e-cigarette lying on a red ashtray
E-cigarettes are a controversial topic, and they are hitting the headlines again in claims that they could “boost health” and “reduce deaths”. What’s the truth behind the headlines?

A report published today by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) suggests that electronic cigarettes have the potential to contribute to reducing death and disability caused by smoking.

The report suggests that using e-cigarettes as an aid to stop smoking is significantly less harmful to your health than smoking tobacco. It also says that the role of e-cigarettes in helping to prevent deaths and disability caused by smoking should be considered carefully.

Strengths and weaknesses of the report

A strength of the report were the experts that contributed to it. These included the Public Health England's Head of Tobacco Control, the Chief Executive of Action on Smoking and Health (UK), and 19 professors and researchers from England and Canada who specialise in smoking, health, and behaviour. 

However, it is important to recognise that the RCP is a professional membership body for doctors. They are not researchers and the report is not based on new research. Instead the report authors are a working group of healthcare experts who are simply updating and announcing their view on reducing the harm of cigarette smoking in the UK, with a focus on e-cigarettes. Furthermore, their view is based on the limited existing research available, and they admit that it is still unclear whether e-cigarettes are safe in the long-term.  They said: “More research is needed to establish the long term safety of e-cigarettes.”

There are 2.6 million e-cigarette users in the UK, and many smokers are using them to help quit

Moreover, the RCP is an independent charity and while it can make recommendations on e-cigarettes to the government, it does not have the power to enforce them. Therefore a limitation of this report is that it offers suggestions, such as “promoting e-cigarettes”, but whether this will happen lies with the government.

The media coverage

The Express headline was “E-cigarettes could boost health of Brits and reduce deaths from smoking”. Associating smoking an e-cigarette with a health boost, like you would with healthy eating or a new  physical activity, is misleading. In the report the RCP only suggested that e-cigarettes are better compared to tobacco cigarettes. Smoking them would not “boost” people’s health, however there would be some benefit to people who already smoked tobacco cigarettes to switch to e-cigarettes. 

Similarly the Telegraph headline “Doctors body strongly promotes e-cigarettes as healthier alternative to smoking as EU rules make them weaker,” gave the impression that e-cigarettes are positive, rather than just less negative compared to regular cigarettes. 

The BHF View

Dr Mike Knapton, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “Stopping smoking is the single best thing you can do for your heart health. Smoking directly causes heart disease, respiratory disease, as well as many cancers and despite 70 per cent of smokers wanting to quit, there are still nearly nine million adults in the UK that smoke.

Stopping smoking is the single best thing you can do for your heart health

Dr Mike Knapton
BHF Associate Medical Director

“E-cigarettes are new devices commonly used by smokers that deliver nicotine without tobacco, and are an effective way of reducing the harm caused. We welcome this report which says that e-cigarettes can be an effective aid to potentially reduce harm from smoking and lower the risk of death and disability.

“There are 2.6 million e-cigarette users in the UK, and many smokers are using them to help quit. Although more research is needed to establish the long term safety of e-cigarettes, they are likely to cause significantly less harm to your health than smoking tobacco.” 

Earlier this year BHF funded research found that e-cigarettes have overtaken licensed nicotine replacement therapies such as NRT, gum or skin patches as the most popular form of support to stop smoking, and they continue to increase in popularity.

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