A huge number of column inches have been devoted to the topic of e cigarettes since they rose to prominence in the last few years. We've had everything from panicky blog posts that insist vaping is the most dangerous thing in the world, to long broadsheet articles insisting that the nicotine delivery devices are good for your mental health.
Far more posts contain very little in the way of information at all, and instead read like a bulletin from the 1950s about the dangers of rock and roll ("it's new, so let's panic and assume it will corrupt our young people and destroy humanity!")
It's all very silly, but how do we sieve through all of this panic and opinion to uncover the true facts? Take the widespread idea that e-cigarettes will encourage teenagers to take up smoking. This was actually disproven in a recent study by ASH which highlighted that e-cigarettes are not a gateway product. In fact, it seems the vast majority of electronic cigarette users are people who previously smoked tobacco and turned to vaping in an attempt to quit.
Anther recent study published in the May 2014 edition of the medical journal Addiction found that people who wanted to quit smoking were about 60 percent more likely to succeed if they used e-cigarettes compared to would-be quitters who tried an anti-smoking nicotine patch or gum. This survey by an e-cigarette company (Intellicig) also found that 68% of their users have stopped smoking traditional cigarettes since switching to vaping, and out of those 68%, 97% had tried - and failed- to stop smoking before using other methods. One of these people is my uncle, who managed to finally put a stop to a 25 year long tobacco habit by switching to e-cigarettes. Are they perfect? Probably not, but I'm certainly happy that he's no longer smoking a pack a day.
Unlike nicotine patches, some e-liquids do contain a chemical called propylene glycol that helps deliver the nicotine to the user and that is breathed in during the process. This has (understandably) led to concerns about their use. Many companies have noted this concern and now offer e-liquids made with vegetable glycerine instead, but some medical professionals are still worried. This is fair enough, it's their job to worry after all. Also, we need to be clear about any risks associated with any new technology. However, it's important not to let misgivings turns into unfounded fears that could undermine what is, in effect, one of the most effective ways to wean people off traditional cigarettes to come along in decades.
The co chair of the British Medical Association's public health medicine committee recently announced that "these devices directly undermine the effects and intentions of existing legislation including the ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces." When the BMA's director of professional activities - Vivienne Nathanson- was asked whether e-cigarettes are safe she said: "the simple answer is we don't know."
The nervous, precautionary stance adopted by the BMA has annoyed other healthcare professionals. When Robert West, Professor of Health Psychology and Director of Tobacco Studies at University College London was asked about the BMA's opinion by the Guardian, and said: "It would be a shame to let it slip away by being overly cautious. E-cigarettes are about as safe as you can get. We know about the health risks of nicotine from studies in Sweden into the use of "Snus", a smokeless tobacco. Nicotine is not what kills you when you smoke tobacco. E-cigarettes are probably about as safe as drinking coffee. All they contain is water vapour, nicotine and propylene glycol."
Propylene glycol is a solvent, and there is a natural hesitation when it comes to the idea of breathing in a 'chemical'. There are over 4000 chemicals in tobacco smoke, nearly all of which are more harmful than propylene glycol. Yes, of course it isn't ideal and we don't know much about the long term health risks associated with inhaling it, but surely one chemical is better than 4000? Should we ban this technology just because it isn't perfect? It may well improve in the future if left to develop and expand. As Professor West says: "fear of normalisation shouldn't stop us transforming the health of smokers."
Let's follow his lead, focus on the positives and stop making it harder than it needs to be for people to quit traditional cigarettes.