Return to Science – Vaping Misinformation Hinders Tobacco Control Efforts

Despite the widespread availability of evidence proving the efficacy of electronic vapour products (EVPs) as an effective tool for those looking for a less harmful alternative to ultimately quit should they wish, there have been several claims stating this to not be the case. Voices opposed to the use of EVPs have come in the form of public health bodies, governments and media reports highlighting the supposed health harms of vaping. Such views have very seldom been influenced by any balanced evaluation of the available evidence on EVPs. This only works to discourage smokers from taking up safer alternatives to combustible tobacco, thus impacting potential for the improved health of smokers and reducing overall smoking rates.

A recent study, led by the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco and published in July 2022, found that opposing guidance and conflicting information on the harms of e-cigarettes may dissuade smokers from switching to vaping. Conducted in the United Kingdom, study is the first of its kind to demonstrate that conflicting information increases e-cigarette harm perceptions amongst vapers, and smokers who do not vape. Its findings are concerning, especially considering that smokers stand the most to gain from accessing accurate information on e-cigarettes and making the switch from combustible tobacco. They also highlight a need for greater consensus amongst public health experts and government stakeholders, and a need to return to scientific evidence on EVPs as opposed to relying on biased views.

Another study, led by researchers from the American Cancer Society (ACS) and published in June 2022, has found that the number of adults in the United States (US) who believe that e-cigarettes are harmful has doubled year on year from 2018 to 2020. This, the study finds, has affected smoking rates. Possibly influenced by scares over e-cigarette, or vaping, product use-associated lung injury (EVALI)and COVID-19, 28.3% of the roughly 3,300 Americans surveyed in 2020 believed vaping was more harmful than smoking. Among those who believed that e-cigarettes were more harmful than combustible tobacco, exclusive smoking almost doubled from 8.4% in 2019 to 16.3% in 2020 after declining between 2018 (18.5%) and 2019 (8.4%).

Both studies prove the damaging effects of any widespread negative misinformation about e-cigarettes. In the main, such misinformation discourages smokers from making the switch to EVPs and may lead to an overall increase in the use of combustible tobacco products. This is completely counterproductive, only working to further complicate the public health challenge of smoking. Anti-vaping views have mostly been shaped by moral judgements and prohibitionist approaches, which have proven to be ineffective, rather than the available scientific data and evidence on vaping. In the end, the supposed war against nicotine seems to have taken priority over the public health goal of reducing the harms of combustible tobacco.

The Vapour Products Association of South Africa (VPASA) has consistently called for government and relevant stakeholders to focus their attention on the scientific evidence on EVPs, especially as South Africa considers the appropriate regulatory measures for vaping products. Research from the UK Royal College of Physicians has found that vaping is far less harmful than combustible tobacco, further noting that the hazard to health arising from long-term vapour inhalation is unlikely to exceed 5% of the harm from combustible tobacco. Updated evidence from the Cochrane Library has found that e-cigarettes containing nicotine could increase the number of people who stop smoking compared to Nicotine Replacement Therapies (NRT), such as gums and patches. While not risk-free, EVPs provide an effective tool for smokers to move away from the deadly habit. It is vital that regulatory approaches base their conclusions on sound science, as opposed to moral judgements. This would require a fair and unbiased evaluation of the available evidence on EVPs, before any decisions on the appropriate measures for their regulation are made. Unfounded claims on vaping have been proven to be harmful, only overshadowing and hindering the public health goal of reducing smoking rates.