Misleading information on e-cigarettes risks lives
As the popularity of e-cigarettes has surged in recent years, so has the public’s confusion over the health risks these products pose.
Last year, more than 10 million American adults used e-cigarettes, or “vaped,” and e-cigarette use has rapidly grown among teens.
Meanwhile, some surveys indicate that the majority of Americans believe e-cigarettes are as harmful as combustible cigarettes, with an additional 10 percent believing e-cigarettes are more dangerous than combustible cigarettes. In addition, the share of Americans with these beliefs has grown sharply in recent years.
The truth is that e-cigarettes are less dangerous than traditional cigarettes and other combustible tobacco products. In contrast to combustible cigarettes, e-cigarettes deliver nicotine through a vaporized propylene-glycol solution, not through burning tobacco. Users inhale the aerosol, which contains far fewer toxic chemicals than the tar found in smoke from conventional cigarettes.
According to a review of scientific evidence by Public Health England, the U.K.’s equivalent of our CDC, e-cigarettes are 95 percent less harmful than conventional cigarettes. While that determination has come under fire, there’s little question at this point that e-cigarettes are less harmful than regular smoking.
E-cigarettes are by no means safe. In addition to addictive nicotine, some reports suggest that e-cigarette vapor can contain heavy metals, toxic flavorings, carcinogens, and particulates. Studies of e-cigarette users have documented increased levels of oxidative stress, impaired respiratory function, and light-headedness, among other effects.
But while e-cigarettes are not benign, a growing number of health organizations, including the Royal College of Physicians, National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, and American Cancer Society, have joined Public Health England in recognizing that e-cigarettes are safer than traditional cigarettes and can play a role in tobacco harm reduction.
So why is public opinion so at odds with scientific consensus? Much of the confusion stems from public health agencies and nonprofits that peddle misleading or outright incorrect information about the threat e-cigarettes represent, often lumping e-cigarettes in with much more dangerous tobacco products.
Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Department of Health tweeted, “E-cigarettes, e-cigs, ehookahs, mods, vape pens or vapes — whatever you call them, they are NOT safer than other tobacco products.” Similarly, the FDA states that “All tobacco products are harmful to your health, despite what they taste, smell, or look like,” without making any distinction between the relative risks of different products.
Public health advocates might argue that these tactics are justified as a means of discouraging non-smokers, particularly young people, from trying e-cigarettes, developing a nicotine dependency, and potentially transitioning to more harmful combustible tobacco products. But while smoking initiation through e-cigarette use is a valid concern, spreading vague or misleading information about e-cigarette risks also discourages smokers from trying safer alternatives.
Cigarette smoking kills nearly half a million Americans each year, and most cessation treatments are disappointingly ineffective. However, a recent randomized trial suggests that e-cigarettes may be nearly twice as effective as other nicotine replacement therapies (like patches and gum) at getting smokers to kick the habit. There are signs that e-cigarettes have already helped millions of Americans quit smoking, saving countless lives. As e-cigarette use rose over the last five years, for example, smoking rates dropped to record lows.
A recent study found that, even under worst-case assumptions, e-cigarettes will still deliver public health benefits.
Public health advocates should give consumers the facts about e-cigarettes. By equating the health risks of e-cigarettes and combustible cigarettes and failing to acknowledge the different relative risks of these products, authority figures are doing a disservice to the millions of smokers who may be seeking a safer alternative but are misled into believing there is no health benefit from switching to e-cigarettes. The consequences of these actions are clear: Fewer smokers will quit and more will die.
Liam Sigaud works on economic policy and research for the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit educational and research organization.