The Vape Debate
The Evolution of E-cigarettes
In the world of nicotine consumption, the journey from traditional tobacco smoking to the modern era of vaping has been a remarkable one. The first glimpse of this transformation appeared in 1963 when Herbert A. Gilbert conceptualized the idea of an electronic cigarette. Unfortunately, the cultural acceptance of smoking during the 1960s meant that Gilbert’s invention had no market to thrive in.
Fast forward four decades, and the world was becoming increasingly aware of the detrimental health effects of tobacco. It was during this era, following the loss of his father to lung cancer, that Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik developed the electronic cigarette. This innovative device offered nicotine without the countless harmful chemicals found in traditional tobacco smoke. By 2005, the e-cigarette had made its debut in the UK, followed closely by its introduction to the US in 2007 (Andrews, 2023).
The Shifting Purpose of E-cigarettes
Initially conceived as a tool to aid individuals in quitting smoking, e-cigarettes faced a twist in their narrative when, in 2008, the World Health Organization declared that they should not be marketed as smoking cessation aids. This declaration, while not taking a definitive stance on their overall impact, contributed to the increasing popularity of e-cigarettes.
Today, approximately 8.5% of the UK population uses vaping as an alternative to smoking, with a significant percentage among young people aged 11-18 considering themselves regular or occasional vapers (Action on Smoking and Health, 2023).
E-cigarettes vs. Traditional Smoking: The Research
A review conducted by Public Health England in 2018 concluded that vaping is 95% less harmful than smoking conventional cigarettes and has been instrumental in helping 20,000 people quit smoking each year. Surprisingly, this agency expressed concern that over half of smokers falsely believed that vaping was as harmful as smoking itself. One pivotal factor contributing to this misconception was the perplexing issue of flavourings.
Many individuals are swift to assume that vapes must be more hazardous than smoking, primarily due to the enticing, sweet-tasting flavourings used in e-cigarettes. However, delving into the heart of this flavouring conundrum, the reality remains that evidence regarding their impact on health risks remains inconclusive. While certain vaping products containing the flavouring chemical cinnamaldehyde have raised legitimate concerns, regulatory bodies are actively reassessing its use in e-liquids (Nicotine vaping in England: 2022 evidence update main findings, 2022).
Nonetheless, it’s imperative to note that the evidence regarding the potential of specific flavourings in vaping products to influence cellular responses is still limited. This evidence primarily stems from animal and cell studies. These findings, when juxtaposed against the well-documented perils of tobacco smoke, invite us to ponder a vital question: If vaping is widely acknowledged and substantiated as significantly less harmful than smoking, what has driven the recent decision by the UK government to impose a ban on all vaping products?”
Understanding the UK Government’s Ban on Vapes
Around 2019, a couple of years into the establishment of the vape market, vapes did not pose a significant concern in the UK. The UK’s perception of vaping significantly differed from that of the US. While the US grappled with outbreaks of vaping-related illnesses and a youth vaping epidemic labelled a “public health crisis,” the UK remained unscathed. Vaping did not surge among young non-smokers in the UK; rather, it was embraced by adults as a means to quit traditional cigarettes.
In the UK, health authorities unequivocally supported e-cigarettes as a cessation tool. Their stance was clear: “If you don’t smoke, don’t vape, but if you smoke, there is no situation where it would be better for your health to continue smoking rather than switching completely to vaping” (Hunt, 2019). The UK culture revolved around vapes being a “replacement and not an initiation product,” as aptly expressed by Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a professor of paediatrics at Stanford Medicine’s Division of Adolescent Medicine.
The Shift in Government Stance
However, today, the UK government has taken decisive action to ban all vapes. Their primary rationale? Alarmingly high rates of teens and children using vapes. But how did vapes suddenly become the hype amongst children, so much so that it has resulted in an alarmingly high figure of UK child vape smokers?
The success of the vape industry at targeting children: how they did it.
According to a recent study conducted by ASH in 2022, the surge in the popularity of vapes among children can be attributed to a multitude of factors. For those who have never smoked, the most common reason for trying an e-cigarette is simply curiosity, with “just to give it a try” cited by a significant 65% of respondents. Among young smokers, the allure of vaping primarily lies in the delightful flavours it offers (21%) and the overall enjoyable experience (18%). Notably, fruit-flavoured vapes are the top choice for 57% of young vapers. To enhance their appeal, vapes are not only tantalizing in taste but also designed with vibrant and eye-catching aesthetics. Quite literally, they’ve been designed to resemble colourful sweets in a candy shop making them undeniably attractive to younger audiences.
the vape debate is far from straightforward. It encompasses a complex interplay of health considerations, regulatory actions, and industry strategies. As society grapples with these challenges, it’s essential to stay informed and engage in open dialogues to ensure that our decisions prioritize the well-being of individuals, especially the younger generations, who may be swayed by the allure of these modern nicotine alternatives. Balancing the potential harm reduction benefits of vaping with the need to protect youth from its appeal remains a central challenge in this ongoing debate.
- Action on Smoking and Health (ASH). (2023). Use of e-cigarettes (vapes) among young people in Great Britain. Available at: https://ash.org.uk/uploads/Use-of-vapes-among-young-people-GB-2023.pdf?v=1690455394
- Andrews, T. (2023) A Brief History Of E Cigarettes, OK Vape. Available at: https://okvape.co.uk/blog/vaping-beginners/brief-history-of-e-cigarettes/#:~:text=His%20e%20cig%20design%20enjoyed,the%20American%20market%20in%202007.
- Ash (2022) Fears of growth in children vaping disposables backed up by new national survey, ASH. Available at: https://ash.org.uk/media-centre/news/press-releases/fears-of-growth-in-children-vaping-disposables-backed-up-by-new-national-survey
- Hunt, K. (2019) The US and UK see vaping very differently. Here’s why, CNN. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2019/09/17/health/vaping-us-uk-e-cigarette-differences-intl/index.html
- Nicotine vaping in England: 2022 evidence update main findings (2022) GOV.UK. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/nicotine-vaping-in-england-2022-evidence-update/nicotine-vaping-in-england-2022-evidence-update-main-findings#:~:text=3.2%20Adults&text=smoking%20prevalence%20in%20England%20in,3.2%20million%20adults%20who%20vape
- PHE publishes independent expert e-cigarettes evidence review (2018) GOV.UK. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/phe-publishes-independent-expert-e-cigarettes-evidence-review