Is vaping safe?

close up of man vaping

E-cigarettes are everywhere and they’re rarely out of the news. Lucy Trevallion looks at the pros and cons of vaping.

There are plenty of scare stories about e-cigarettes, but are they really a dangerous trend, or a useful way to quit smoking?

Electronic cigarettes, known as e-cigarettes or vapourisers, are battery-powered devices that mimic the action of smoking, offering nicotine (in most cases), but without the toxic effect of tobacco smoke. They’ve been in the UK since 2007, and keep growing in popularity. 

More people may be using them, but e-cigarettes are not harm-free. A study published in Environmental Science & Technology in July 2016 identified harmful emissions in the vapour, including possible carcinogens and irritants, though at a much lower level than in conventional cigarettes. The BHF would not advise non-smokers to start smoking e-cigarettes. In a 2018 report, Public Health England (PHE) estimates they are 95 per cent less harmful than regular cigarettes.

Dr Mike Knapton, Associate Medical Director at the BHF, said: “We would not advise non-smokers to take up e-cigarettes, but they can be a useful tool for harm reduction and to stop smoking.”

According to NHS Digital's Statistics on Smoking, more than 3.2 million adults in Great Britain use e-cigarettes – 6.3% of the adult population. Of these users, 52% are ex-smokers, suggesting they are helping people to stop smoking. 

Martin Dockrell, Tobacco Control Programme Lead at PHE, said: “We know that e-cigarettes are probably not completely safe, but that’s not the issue. The question is, are e-cigarettes safer than the alternative? And, for almost all e-cigarette users the alternative is smoking, and it's really important that they understand how much safer e-cigarettes are, compared to smoking".

Smoking substitute

Smoking-related diseases account for around 100,000 deaths each year in the UK. Most of these deaths arise from one of three diseases: lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and coronary heart disease.

“People might be surprised at how much easier it is to quit with an electronic cigarette,” said Martin. “Any smoker with a heart condition has almost certainly tried to quit in the past, and failed. Try again with an electronic cigarette because you might find that’s a lot easier. And further down the line, you might want to quit the e-cigarette as well.”

We know that e-cigarettes are probably not completely safe, but that’s not the issue.

Martin Dockrell, Tobacco Control Programme Lead at PHE

The Royal College of Physicians has reviewed the available evidence and advises GPs to promote e-cigarettes “as widely as possible as a substitute for smoking”. 

Recent independent studies from PHE show that most of the chemicals causing smoking related disease are absent in e-cigarettes, and chemicals that are present pose little danger.

Martin said: “For the main carcinogen in tobacco smoke, levels in e-cigarette users were close to that of non-smokers.”

But a small study, published in August 2016, suggested that smoking e-cigarettes for 30 minutes can cause arteries to stiffen, in a similar way to tobacco cigarettes, suggesting more research is needed into their long-term safety. 

Nicotine and your heart

Nicotine, while highly addictive, is not a significant health hazard for people without heart conditions. It does not cause acute cardiac events or coronary heart disease, and is not carcinogenic. But nicotine is a problem for people with heart disease. It raises the heart rate, contradicting the goal of most treatments. Tell your GP if you have heart disease and are using nicotine replacement.

More useful information