Vaping is "just as bad as smoking" according to a headline in the Sun. Is it true?
To be honest, I don't normally waste time engaging with egregious nonsense from the gutter press. But the Sun and the Mail today both carry headlines suggesting that vaping is "just as bad as smoking" over articles which simply do not support the headline. It is worth examining what is actually claimed in the articles.
The Sun: "VAPING BAD: E-cigs are just as bad for your heart as smoking fags as they damage key blood vessels, say experts"
So what does the copy supporting this headline actually say? 'Top expert' Prof Robert West of University College London is quoted as saying: “It would certainly be fair to say the study shows electronic cigarettes are not without any risk. “The critical question is how much risk?” And Prof Peter Weissberg, medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “The study shows electronic cigarettes cannot be assumed to be risk free. “Much more research is needed to establish the safety of long-term use of these devices.” I am not sure there has been any serious claim that anyone disagrees that further research would be a good thing. But should we be acting on pure speculation, or act according to the best research currently available. As the Sun article notes in the very next sentence following these quotes: "Health officials last year claimed e-cigarettes were 95 per cent safer than tobacco and GPs will soon be able prescribe them alongside nicotine patches and gum to help smokers quit." Hilariously, the online article then carries a link to this 'related story'. So should the headline be:
"Vaping as dangerous as sitting down, experts say"?
Further down the piece we get a couple of different opinions: Deborah Arnott, from quit-smoking charity ASH, insisted e-cigs were much safer than tobacco. "Rosanna O’Connor, director of drugs, alcohol and tobacco at Public Health England, agreed, saying: “Vaping carries a fraction of the risk of smoking. “Yet many smokers are still not aware, which could be keeping people smoking rather than switching to a much less harmful alternative.”
Mail Online: "E-cigarettes are 'as bad for the heart as tobacco': Nicotine vapour damages blood vessels and raises risk of disease"
Again, the headline claims the study found that vaping is as bad for the heart as tobacco. Read down a few lines, though and there is a quote from the man who conducted the study, Professor Charalambos Vlachopoulos, of the University of Athens Medical School: ‘E-cigarettes are less harmful but they are not harmless. I wouldn’t recommend them now as a method to give up smoking.’ And the Mail is using this man's words to justify their headline?
So what is the truth?
We should be having an open debate about vaping and smoking. According to ASH, around 96,000 people die in the UK each year from smoking related diseases. It is true that vaping products have not yet been fully tested - these processes take time, and vaping is a relatively new phenomenon. As a vaper, I would like to know much more about the effects of vaping. As research progresses, studies like this one will start to explore the effect of vaping on the body. But a small scale study like this one, which explicitly states the hypothesis that nicotine is the cause of the symptoms found, and did not test nicotine free e-liquid (but plans to do so next) is far removed from a full peer reviewed study. As last year's Public Health England report noted, even if the nicotine in e-liquid is damaging to health, there are so many other known toxins present in tobacco smoke that as far as we know at the moment vaping is 95% less harmful than smoking. Tabloids like to use the word 'study' as if that gives a piece of research final scientific authority. The scientists behind the Public Health England report understand the difference between research in progress and full research projects which publish their results as peer reviewed papers. As things stand, it is clear that we can make a few statements with tolerable certainty:
- If the choice is to vape, to smoke, or to do neither, the safest option is to do neither.
- Smoking tobacco is almost certainly significantly more harmful than vaping. To claim that vaping is "just as bad as smoking" is to mis-represent the available facts.
- Vaping e-liquid containing nicotine may be more dangerous than vaping nicotine free e-liquid.
- Vaping has been a tremendously successful smoking cessation tool for many thousands of people.
- Vaping is for adults only, and adults must assess the risk of such an activity for themselves.
- The vaping industry should be transparent, and supportive of further research.
The failure of the tabloid newspapers to treat this debate in a balanced way, favoring cheap and misleading headlines over balanced analysis is shameful. As far as we know, every person these headlines lead into continuing to smoke rather than vaping may be missing the chance to reduce the harm smoking does to their health by 95%. They are very fond of holding 'wrongdoers' to account. Perhaps they should look in the mirror once in a while. To suggest that vaping is "just as bad as smoking" may prove as bad as telling people smoking does you no harm, just as Big Tobacco did for all those years. So why are journalists inclined to do so?