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UK study recommends e-cigarettes as healthier alternative to smoking

Science & Policymaking

UK study recommends e-cigarettes as healthier alternative to smoking

The vapour from e-cigarettes is far less toxic than tobacco smoke.


Electronic cigarettes are 95% less harmful than normal cigarettes and could be a useful tool to help people quit smoking, a study published by Public Health England said. EurActiv France reports.

Opposition to e-cigarettes among health professionals appears to be subsiding as more studies focus on the useful role they could play in combatting the health problems of smoking. In 2014, the World Health Organisation (WHO) encouraged states to ban or regulate the promotion and sale of e-cigarettes, but recent studies have found these devices to be much less dangerous than normal tobacco cigarettes, and have even recommended that governments promote them as an alternative to smoking.

A report published in August 2015 by Public Health England (PHE), an agency of the UK’s Department of Health, found that electronic cigarettes are 95% less harmful than tobacco cigarettes, and recommended that they should be promoted as a tool to help people quit smoking.

E-cigarettes hold another key advantage over normal cigarettes: they do not emit smoke, so their health impact on non-users is negligible. In some countries with smoking bans, their use is even allowed in public spaces.

A healthier alternative

While smokers are addicted to the nicotine in cigarettes, the health problems associated with smoking are largely caused by the inhalation of the toxic by-products generated by burning tobacco.

As e-cigarettes contain no tobacco, they represent a far less toxic alternative to normal cigarettes. According to the PHE study, the devices’ physical resemblance to cigarettes makes them more appealing than other nicotine products, for smokers trying to wean themselves off tobacco.

While a number of studies have also found harmful substances in electronic cigarettes, not least the drug nicotine, they are present in significantly lower levels than in tobacco cigarettes.

E-cigarettes contain cartridges filled with liquids containing nicotine, at higher or lower concentrations. The device heats the liquid and delivers the nicotine to the user in a cloud of vapour: there is no burning of tobacco, and no toxic smoke.

Passive smoking

Second hand smoke inhalation kills 600,000 people every year, according to the WHO. The diseases it causes are similar to those typically developed by smokers: cancers, heart and respiratory diseases, infections, etc. The delivery of nicotine by steam, rather than smoke, means that e-cigarettes have little effect on a user’s risk of developing these diseases.

The English research team also found that ambient nicotine levels in the homes of e-cigarette users were negligible, and that levels of nicotine and other harmful substances in their bodies were far lower than those of tobacco cigarette smokers.

The legislation

Under the European Tobacco Products Directive, e-cigarettes that contain more than a certain amount of nicotine must be sold, and subjected to the same regulations, as medical devices. The directive came into force since April 2014, and member states have until May 2016 to bring their legislation into line.

Certain forms of advertising for e-cigarettes will also be banned, and manufacturers will have to put warnings on the packaging, similar to those on packs of tobacco cigarettes. Other requirements of the directive include raising the legal purchasing age and banning flavoured nicotine products.

>>Read: New tobacco directive turns blind eye on e-cigarettes

Although there has been no long term study into the effects of electronic cigarettes and the substances they contain, the PHE report recommends them as a less dangerous alternative to normal cigarettes.

But for now, the law varies from one member state to another. In France and Belgium, for example, cartridges cannot legally contain nicotine, while in the UK they can. 

Further Reading