UK Government confirms Vaping Safer than Smoking

/ 5 min read

UK Government confirms Vaping Safer than Smoking

The UK government has recently published (29th Sept 2022) the 8th in its series of annual reports reviewing e-cigarettes and related vaping products, summarising evidence for and against them to inform policies and regulations. The same series of reports which famously declared vaping to officially be 95% less harmful than smoking tobacco in their 2015 issue.

What the Reports Cover

Each year has seen the evidence reviews focus on different areas of vaping and its interaction with society. Where other reports by the likes of the World Health Organisation (WHO) have been criticized by both the public and experts alike for apparently obvious bias, the UK Government’s reports are globally considered to be the most comprehensive and impartial.

This impartiality is all the more important when we observe how each report, assessing only facts and quality studies, has found vaping to be an overall positive influence on society. Not only this, but each report since 2015 has consistently found vaping products like the EDGE GO to be safer than smoking and second-to-none as a cessation tool – the focus of the report published in February 2021.

You can explore the reports and summaries of their findings here. The reports are typically compiled from multiple studies and any new or influential data regarding vaping, guided by tobacco and healthcare industry experts.

The reports are ultimately used as a resource for policymakers to help guide and inform both public health and tobacco control plans (like Smokefree 2030), with an intent to understand how vaping should, or should not play a role.

This is a Smoke Free zone sign

Growing Evidence in Favour of Vaping

As the evidence reports have grown over the years, there have been many findings that have led experts to get behind vaping as a safer alternative to smoking. The studies universally agree that the evidence strongly suggests that not only is it less harmful, but that it could also help to bridge the gap between the richest and poorest communities, which are directly linked to smoking rates.

You can learn more about the evidence in favour of vaping as a cessation tool in our guide, Finding the Right Alternative.

Levelling the economic playing field and reducing the financial pressures of nicotine addiction to the most vulnerable in society is all the more important in the wake of the UK cost-of-living crisis. Not to mention the relief to services like the NHS that would come from reducing the risks faced by sufferers of smoking related illnesses.

There is also much evidence showing the clear knowledge gaps in our society, owing to much misinformation and sensationalist journalism which has dogged the vaping industry for years. With more adults than even children misinterpreting the harm posed by vapes vs cigarettes.

Regulations and licensing

Vaping products containing nicotine are regulated under the Tobacco and Related Products Regulations 2016 (TRPR), and need to be ‘notified’ to the Medicines and Healthcare product Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

The MHRA ensure vaping products comply to certain standards (for example, nicotine content is limited to 20 milligrams per millilitre (mg/ml) sometimes written as 2% on disposable vapes) before they can be legally sold in the UK. A study of MHRA approved vaping products from 2016 to 2017 found that those which had been tested and properly registered were unlikely to cause serious harm.

Adverse Reactions

The MHRA also collects information on ‘adverse events’ believed to be associated with vaping products containing nicotine through its Yellow Card scheme. Between 20 May 2016 (When Tobacco and Related Products Regulations (TRPR) were brought in) and 13 January 2022, the MHRA received 257 reports of adverse reactions (26 of those since January 2021).

Each report represents an individual for whom more than one negative reaction could have been reported. A report is not proof that the reaction was caused by a vaping product, just that the reporter thought it might have been.

Since January 2021, the MHRA has considered only 14 of the reports as serious, and no fatalities were reported.

Negative reactions to licensed smoking cessation medications are also reported to the MHRA. In 2021 there were 297 reports for nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) and 78 for Champix (now withdrawn from sale).

Woman holding a vaping device

E-Liquid Flavours

Data was assessed examining the toxicity of certain flavouring ingredients and compounds, in relation to the popularity of specific flavours amongst vapers, with fruit being the most popular overall.

A systematic review of the evidence on youth use of e-liquid flavours concluded that existing research does not yet provide a clear understanding of how flavours in vaping products are associated with young people taking up or stopping smoking.

Findings from 22 studies suggest there is limited evidence that flavourings in vaping products, particularly cinnamaldehyde (a common flavouring), or buttery or creamy flavours have a small potential to affect our bodies in unwanted ways, but far less than exposure to tobacco smoke.

It was however decided that a more standardised approach is needed to evaluate the risks associated with flavourings in e-liquids in human and cell studies, independent of other ingredients like nicotine and PG/VG.

Man looking confused

Harm Perception Amongst the Public

It is generally felt through the reports that more needs to be done to enforce accurate communication of facts and risks associated with vaping, in order for it to reach its potential as a quitting aid, as backed by the NHS.

Among 11- to 18-year-olds, using 2021 ASH-Y (an Action on Smoking and Health youth study) data:

  • 7% accurately perceived that vaping was less harmful than smoking
  • 4% inaccurately thought that the harms from vaping and smoking were about the same
  • 6% inaccurately thought that vaping was more harmful than smoking
  • 3% said they did not know

Among 16- to 19-year-olds (using ITC Youth study data), we see slightly different patterns in 2021, with most (62.9%) accurately perceiving vaping is less harmful than smoking. Yet, we also saw:

  • 8% inaccurately perceived vaping to be equally harmful to smoking
  • 10% inaccurately perceived vaping to be more harmful than smoking
  • 10% reported that they did not know

Among adult smokers in 2021 STS data, just over a third (34.1%) accurately perceived that vaping was less harmful than smoking. But around a third (32.1%) inaccurately thought that the harms from vaping and smoking were about the same, 11.9% inaccurately thought that vaping was more harmful than smoking, and 22% said they did not know.

The 2022 Report Series

The latest report provides some very interesting findings that we will report on separately, including the youth vaping issues deepening in the UK, the true reduction in harm when switching to vaping from smoking and beyond.

Follow us as we explore the latest evidence for vaping and discover the facts that will define the future of the industry here in the UK.

Our Sources: