When it comes to smoking, one of the greatest pressures the NHS faces, the government has admirably embraced e-cigarette use to prevent smoking-related diseases, rather than waiting to treat the cause. However, the government’s e-cigarette policy is being undermined by an Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) report published at the start of the month.
ASH found that more than one in four smokers wrongly believe that vaping is as or more harmful as smoking and the perception is getting worse, not better. Despite there being clear evidence that e-cigarettes are far less harmful than combustible tobacco and a very effective way of quitting, the data shows that “among the 2.9 million smokers who have tried vaping but stopped, 44 per cent believe vaping is as harmful or more than smoking up from 25 per cent in 2019.”
If Britain aspires to be smoke-free by 2030), the government needs to closely monitor the avalanche of misinformation being peddled to the public. It is unacceptable that the proportion of people who smoke being deterred from life-saving products has nearly doubled since 2019.
The Times covered ASH’s report and headlined it as undermining NHS efforts, yet its own pages have carried articles overstating the risks of vaping for months. Sky News, the Daily Mail and the Guardian have done the same. Anyone searching for accurate information on the relative risk of vaping compared to smoking will be met with a barrage of moral panic and scaremongering from the media.
The NHS rightly promotes vaping as a way of reducing smoking prevalence but its messages are being drowned out by irresponsible misinformation.
The tragedy of this has been highlighted by new research from Brunel University finding that NHS costs could be reduced by £500 million each year if half of UK smokers switched to vaping. ASH remarked that “the biggest benefit [will be] in reductions in spending on social security and social care due to smoking, which together amount to more than double the cost of smoking to the NHS.” Furthermore, research by the University of East Anglia supported the government’s “Swap-to-Stop” scheme to give free vapes to people who smoke.
Evidence shows that the government is on the right track, but it needs to up the ante.
60 per cent of doctors still wrongly believe that nicotine, not smoking cigarettes, causes cancer. This needs to change. A doctor telling their patient that vaping is as bad as smoking can only perpetuate harm.
It may also be wise for the government to speak to some of its own MPs. A recent Health and Social Care Committee hearing – chaired by a Conservative and whose most vocal agitator is a Conservative – promoted commonly-held myths about vaping which ASH has since felt it necessary to debunk.
The government urgently needs to back up its astute and evidence-based approach to vaping and other reduced-risk alternatives if it wants to counter the current pernicious narrative. It must amplify its messaging by educating the media and ill-informed health professionals, as well as guiding politicians of all parties towards evidence rather than myths, conspiracy and hysteria. It must also defend its world-leading promotion of vaping on the international stage.
ASH has advised that “the Government must act quickly to improve public understanding that vaping poses a fraction of the risk of smoking.” It is good advice. That nearly half of people who smoke are misinformed about the impact of products available to them is a tragedy that must be rectified.