To Vape or Not to Vape?

Vaping is an issue where differing opinions and conflicting information are rife. While some experts believe that e-cigarettes can help users quit smoking, others disagree and think they can have a gateway affect on non-smokers.

Kelly Kennington, a member of the Public Health Association of Australia and the Policy and Strategy Manager of Cancer Council WA, expresses her concern with the increasing popularity of e-cigarettes. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” she says, “So people really are unaware of the risks associated with their use.”

Dr Colin Mendelsohn, Associate Professor of Public Health in the School of Public Health and Community Education at the University of New South Wales, has a very different view. “There’s growing evidence that it’s a good solution for many people,” he says, referring to the fact that some claim it to be an effective method of quitting smoking. Dr Mendelsohn admits that it’s better to quit completely, but says that many smokers are unable to. He states a number of studies have shown that “there are millions of smokers internationally who have quit” due to e-cigarettes.

“According to Ms Kennington, during random testing the NSW government found “up to 80%” of non-nicotine cigarettes actually contain high levels of nicotine.”

Ms Kennington says that the idea that they help people quit is “completely unfounded”. She claims that they actually increase levels of traditional smoking and that there’s “growing evidence to support a gateway effect”. She laments that “we’ve worked so hard to get our youth smoking rates down,” and raises concern that e-cigarettes will undo the progress that has been made.

While smoking e-cigarettes is legal in Australia, their sale is not if they contain nicotine. One problem lies in that even when they are marketed as non-nicotine this is not always the case. According to Ms Kennington, during random testing the NSW government found “up to 80%” of non-nicotine cigarettes actually contain high levels of nicotine (this figure is reported as 63% by the ABC). People could unknowingly become addicted to nicotine. It is clear that more thorough testing needs to be the standard. “It is really alarming how available they are in the community given how there’s no regulation around how they’re made or marketed,” says Ms Kennington.

Dr Mendelsohn takes issue with a law enacted earlier this year that has made it illegal to vape in areas where you can’t smoke. He calls this a “very lazy policy decision”. “Unlike second hand smoke the risk to bystanders from passive vaping is negligible,” he claims. Furthermore, he says that this has negative affects on people trying to quit smoking. “The trouble with banning vaping in these public areas is it sends a message that vaping is as harmful as smoking and that discourages people from making the switch,” he says.

“Vaping is at least 95% safer” than traditional cigarettes”.

Dr Mendelsohn claims that switching to vaping from cigarettes “leads to dramatic improvements in health” and that we should be encouraging the transition. Instead of current policy, he suggests Australia should follow the approach in the UK where it is left up to individual businesses and organisations to decide.

“I don’t think the state has any right to legislate just on matters of convenience like this,” he says, claiming it’s getting into the “nanny state area”. He compares the law to legislating on body odour or strong perfume. “We try to be courteous and we look at ways around them,” he suggests, rather than banning them or restricting their use.

In terms of health risks, Dr Mendelsohn states that “vaping is at least 95% safer” than traditional cigarettes”. Ms Kennington says that there is no scientific evidence to this oft-cited figure and that “everyday there’s more evidence around the harms of e-cigarettes”.  She’s concerned that “a lot of people are using them thinking that they’re safer and in actual fact we just don’t know.” However, recent research has shed some light on this lack of information.

A report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in America this year has concluded that e-cigarettes contain substances that are potentially toxic, but that it is unknown whether these are in levels that are carcinogenic. The report also found that trading traditional cigarettes for e-cigarettes does reduce “exposure to numerous toxicants and carcinogens”. However, recent animal studies have shown deformities in embryos when exposed to e-cigarettes, suggesting that they may be harmful to developing babies and should be avoided by pregnant women.

It is clear more research, with more long-term studies needs to be conducted as soon as possible. With vaping becoming more and more popular, increasingly large amounts of people are potentially putting their health at risk. While e-cigarettes may help smokers lessen or quit their habit, we have to be careful to not create a new generation of smokers.

Listen to the interview with Dr Colin Mendelsohn here.

Listen to the interview with Kelly Kennington here.

Wednesday 7th of November, 2018

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