By Sarah Macfadyen, the Policy and Public Affairs Manager at the British Lung Foundation
One of the things we seem to get asked about at the British Lung Foundation more than anything else is e-cigarettes. People have so many questions: Are they safe? Will they make your lung condition worse? What about passive smoking?
The answers to these questions are not always easy to find. That’s why we need the government, public health teams and health professionals to do more to get clear, accurate information out to the people who need it.
The good news is that vaping is much, much safer than smoking tobacco. The best evidence available shows that using an e-cigarette is only around 5% as harmful as smoking tobacco. There has been no major evidence found that passive ‘smoking’ of e-cigarettes is a problem, even for people with lung disease. In the short term, any symptoms from e-cigarettes are likely to be the same as those you might get from a nicotine inhaler or nicotine gum.
That doesn’t mean we can say e-cigarettes are completely safe. There is still more research needed on the long term effects and we need to keep a close eye on whether children and young people are taking up the habit.
But we can be confident that, compared to smoking tobacco, vaping is a considerably better option.
And that matters because too many people are still smoking regularly and aren’t getting the help they need to quit. Smoking is still the single biggest cause of preventable early death.
In the UK we have achieved major reductions in the smoking rate – in England only 15.5% of adults smoke, the lowest figures we have ever seen. But there are huge differences when we look across the population. In the North of England, smoking rates are as high as 17%. One in ten pregnant women still smoke, risking the health of their newborn baby.
The link with inequalities in society is a huge concern. A quarter of people who work in manual jobs smoke. Shockingly, so do 40% of people who have a mental health problem. Huge numbers of our most vulnerable citizens smoke regularly, including homeless people and people in prison.
At the same time, the support that people need to help them quit is disappearing. Public health budgets have been cut across the board and six out of ten local areas have cut funding to their stop smoking services.
This is a false economy – smoking costs the UK almost £13 billion every year, yet getting support from a stop smoking service is the most effective way to quit. But local councils, under huge financial pressure, feel like they don’t have a choice.
This is where e-cigarettes could come in. Already, half of vapers do so to help them stop smoking tobacco. Lots of people tell us that the conventional ways to quit just haven’t worked for them, but are finding they have great success with e-cigarettes.
We would never advise someone who has no history of smoking to take up vaping. And until we have more evidence, we can’t recommend vaping long term. But we can be very clear with patients and the public that they should feel able to try vaping as a way to quit smoking for good.
Doctors and nurses should be equipped to advise their patients on quitting smoking and the British government have pledged this will happen as part of a major new strategy, Towards a smokefree generation. It’s essential that the training for healthcare staff covers information about e-cigarettes and advice for patients on how to use them.
At the same time, public health campaigns should be open about the risks and rewards of vaping, and encourage people who want to quit smoking to give it a go.
This doesn’t mean we should forget about traditional support. The funding cuts to stop smoking services must be reversed so that everyone can access the help they need. Nicotine replacement therapy should be readily available on prescription, which doesn’t always happen at the moment.
If we want to help as many people as possible to quit smoking, and aim for the first smokefree generation, we have to use all the tools at our disposal to get there. E-cigarettes won’t be a silver bullet, but they need to be part of the picture. Anyone who wants to quit smoking should be able to get all the information and advice they need to make a choice that is right for them, their health and their future.
The views expressed in opinion articles published on euronews do not represent our editorial position
Sarah Macfadyen is the Policy and Public Affairs Manager at the British Lung Foundation, where she is responsible for developing policy and influencing change across health services, air quality and tobacco control.