Public Health England last week became the first national government agency to endorse e-cigarettes as safer options for current smokers. Its report also dispelled several bogus anti-tobacco claims.
PHE encourages smokers to switch to e-cigarettes in order to stop smoking and to reduce smoking-related diseases and deaths. The agency strongly rejects the claim that vaping is a pathway to smoking: “There is no evidence that e-cigarettes are undermining the long-term decline in cigarette smoking among adults and youth, and may in fact be contributing to it.”
Additionally, PHE refutes scaremongering about nicotine poisoning (a subject I previously discussed here: “When used as intended, e-cigarettes pose no risk of nicotine poisoning to users, but e-liquids should be in ‘childproof’ packaging. The accuracy of nicotine content labelling currently raises no major concerns.”
I have noted that some researchers have fabricated claims that vapor contains dangerous levels of formaldehyde (here and here). PHE rejects the assertion: “Two recent worldwide media headlines asserted that e-cigarette use is dangerous. These were based on misinterpreted research findings. A high level of formaldehyde was found when e-liquid was over-heated to levels unpalatable to e-cigarette users, but there is no indication that…users are exposed to dangerous levels of aldehydes.”
Unfortunately, the PHE report overreaches in one respect. It says that “best estimates show e-cigarettes are 95% less harmful to your health than normal cigarettes,” and this became the dominant media headline upon the report’s release. To be accurate, PHE should have reported that e-cigarettes are far less harmful than combustible cigarettes, without specifying a percentage; there is no hard data to support a number.
The 95% is derived from the reported opinions of a group of international experts in a publication last year. The opinions were merely “guestimates”. In truth, the health risks of long-term vaping are not known, and they are at this time unknowable. While there is universal agreement among tobacco research and policy experts that inhaling a vapor of propylene glycol, nicotine and flavoring agents is vastly safer than inhaling smoke containing thousands of toxins, the precise risk differential is unknown.
I routinely criticize e-cigarette opponents for violating scientific principles when they make outrageous claims against the products. Recognizing that the PHE report is a welcome endorsement of tobacco harm reduction and e-cigarettes, I am disappointed that its value is at all compromised by a comparison that cannot be scientifically validated.