A new report by the Royal College of Physicians in the United Kingdom says electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) are much safer than smoking and encourages their widespread use by smokers. It concludes that e-cigarettes have huge potential to prevent death and disease from tobacco use.
The review identifies e-cigarettes as a valuable tool to help smokers quit. For those who are unable to quit with currently available methods, e-cigarettes can substitute for smoking by providing the nicotine to which smokers are addicted without the smoke that causes almost all of the harm. This approach is supported by the scientific and public health community in the UK and is consistent with a previous review by Public Health England, the government health agency.
E-cigarettes are the most commonly used aid to quit smoking in the UK. According to the new review, evidence available so far suggests e-cigarettes are at least as effective as nicotine replacement therapy, such as patches or chewing gum. More than one million people have quit smoking in the UK using e-cigarettes. Quit rates are likely to be even higher with professional counselling and with more advanced devices.
E-cigarettes have been available in the UK since 2007 as a general consumer product – with some additional restrictions on advertising and minimum age of sale. They’re used almost exclusively in the UK by smokers who are trying to cut down or quit smoking, or who have quit smoking.
Concerns about e-cigarettes
In Australia, e-cigarettes containing nicotine are prohibited. Most Australian health organisations such as the National Heart Foundation, Cancer Council Australia and the Australian Medical Association take a very risk-averse approach based on potential harms. They say e-cigarettes could be a gateway to smoking for non-smokers; they may make the act of smoking socially acceptable again (renormalisation); there may be unknown long-term safety risks; and dual use may delay quitting.
The new review explores the evidence for these concerns and says they are mostly unfounded.
In the UK, there is no evidence e-cigarettes are a gateway to smoking. E-cigarette use is almost entirely restricted to current or past smokers. Use by children who would not otherwise have smoked appears to be minimal.
The report found no evidence to suspect the use of e-cigarettes renormalises smoking. On the contrary, smoking rates in the UK have been falling as e-cigarette use rises.
E-cigarette vapour contains some toxins and the report acknowledges some harm from long-term use cannot be dismissed. However, it supports the widely held view that the hazard to health is unlikely to exceed 5% of the risk of smoking, and may well be substantially lower. This level of harm is similar to nicotine replacement therapy and is likely to reduce with further technological advances. Similarly, the report concludes the harm to bystanders from vapour exposure is negligible.
Many e-cigarette users continue to smoke as well for a period of time (dual use) but there is no evidence this has reduced the number of smokers who quit. Indeed, dual use is often a transitional phase and many users will go on to quit completely as is the case of smokers concurrently using nicotine replacement therapy. A recent study found dual use reduces smoking intake and is less hazardous.
Implications for Australia
Australia has a comprehensive tobacco control policy including high tobacco taxes, mass media campaigns and smoke-free policies that stimulate quit attempts. However, smoking is highly addictive and most of Australia’s three million smokers try and fail repeatedly to quit, even with existing therapies
Based on the UK experience, e-cigarettes could assist many Australian smokers to quit or could replace cigarettes with a much safer source of nicotine. This could potentially save many thousands of lives each year.
As established smokers are more likely to be socioeconomically disadvantaged or to have mental health problems, the burden of disease falls disproportionately on these groups who have higher levels of addiction to nicotine and greater difficulty quitting.
The precautionary position taken by Australian health organisations and governments is not supported by the available evidence and overseas experience. The growing evidence for safety and effectiveness of e-cigarettes significantly outweighs any potential risks to public health.
A rational, evidence-based approach would be to make e-cigarettes available in Australia as consumer products and to encourage their use while minimising uptake by people who would not otherwise have used nicotine products. Ongoing monitoring and appropriate proportionate regulation would help minimise any risks.
E-cigarettes represent a massive opportunity for Australian smokers and have the potential for large-scale improvements in individual and public health, and social inequality. We cannot afford not to embrace them.