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E-cigarettes are too good to quit, but not for under 18s

The sale of e-cigarettes to under 18s is to be banned under new legislation, which will also see adults prohibited from buying cigarettes to then give or sell to youngsters. Current evidence suggests that…

You’ll need ID for that. Michael Dorausch

The sale of e-cigarettes to under 18s is to be banned under new legislation, which will also see adults prohibited from buying cigarettes to then give or sell to youngsters.

Current evidence suggests that very few youngsters buy e-cigarettes, so some might wonder why it is happening. But it is a sensible precaution in order to prevent problems in the future. The problem is not so much about the harm to health from e-cigarettes themselves but a theoretical risk that adolescents might start using e-cigarettes and then go on to tobacco.

E-cigarettes have become very popular in many countries around the world and in Britain there are an estimated 1.5m users – the vast majority of whom are smokers or ex-smokers trying to stop or cut down on smoking. The prevalence of e-cigarette use in adults who have never smoked regularly is around 0.5%. And according to a report by anti-smoking group ASH, youngsters who used e-cigarettes were those who had already tried smoking.

Help quitting

E-cigarettes have spurred debate but there is reason to believe that e-cigarettes can help smokers to stop smoking who have not succeeded by other methods; and even if users carry on with them indefinitely, they are much safer than smoking. This is because they deliver nicotine but not the other toxins and poisonous gases produced when tobacco is burned.

And while nicotine is addictive – the reasoning behind the under 18s ban – it is not the main cause of smoking-related diseases.

E-cigarettes also vary quite considerably in the quality of manufacture and their ability to deliver nicotine. There is a large and enthusiastic community of “vapers” and visiting a few of their websites should provide useful information about which brands are worth trying and how best to use them.

Switching from tobacco

The opportunity provided by e-cigarettes to save millions of lives by getting to switch from tobacco is something I don’t think we can pass up.

But there are two areas of concern about e-cigarettes that seem to me to be legitimate. One is that they may be marketed in a way that blurs the boundaries with smoking so we end up with more rather than fewer smokers. The other is that many smokers might turn to these products when they would have been better off using one of the existing methods to quit which can be highly successful.

Both of these concerns can probably be addressed. Marketing could be highly regulated; and more could be done to ensure that smokers are aware of all the options available for stopping, as well as the evidence supporting them.