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What’s often neglected in these headlines is that the US vaping crisis is unique. If vaping is dangerous enough to warrant a ban, then how come no similar situation has occurred in the UK?
After all, vaping has been around in this country for many years now and, as of 2019, there are around 3.6 million British people vaping. The vaping community isn’t really a fringe subculture anymore and public awareness of vaping is gradually changing.
Vaping in the UK is actively backed by several medical experts and government institutions, including Public Health England and the NHS, with campaigns to make e-cigarettes more accessible. Despite all this activity, the UK only has 74 reports of negative health reactions linked to vaping over the past three years, and none of them resulted in death.
Considering that vaping is relatively established in the UK and many of the same e-liquid flavours are available, to conclude that vaping is universally dangerous because of the cases coming out of the US just doesn’t stack up. If vaping isn’t bringing about a similar outbreak in the UK (and other countries), then we instead need to look into what makes the UK different.
For one, there’s stronger support in the UK for vaping. Several studies have been done on the health consequences of vaping, and one landmark report that made waves throughout the global community was the 2015 PHE e-cigarette evidence review, which stated that vaping is a least 95% less harmful than cigarettes. The report pointed out that the harmful compound in cigarette smoke isn’t nicotine but rather tar particles and thousands of toxic gases, which are hardly present in e-cigarettes. This has been backed by other studies commissioned by organisations like Cancer Research UK and the Royal College of Physicians.
Beyond this, vaping has taken on a more active role in public health. Surprisingly, vaping is twice as effective as conventional nicotine therapy for helping smokers quit. The Royal College of Physicians has gone as far as to declare that vaping should be promoted as widely as possible as a smoking substitute, and the National Health Service (NHS) is encouraging smokers to switch to vaping.
This is in line with the UK’s goal of becoming smoke-free by 2030. So far, progress is significant, and vaping has contributed to this. Most vapers in the UK get into it to stop smoking, and more than half of them are already ex-smokers. Smoking has plummeted since vaping was introduced in 2011, and a recent study by University College London states that vaping might be helping 50,000 to 70,000 smokers quit per year in England.
Another reason why the UK isn’t seeing similar cases to those in the US is because it has strict regulations for vaping under the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive. There are specific laws that monitor advertising and promotion and vaping isn’t targeted towards kids—as a result, only 1.6% of teenagers in the UK use e-cigarettes weekly, as opposed to the youth vaping prevalence in the US.
More to the point, all vaping products sold in the UK are also carefully inspected and registered with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. In addition, e-liquids can only have a maximum nicotine content of 20 mg/mL, in contrast with the US where some pods by Juul reach as high as 59 mg/mL.
Although there is still more evidence to be collected and analysed, it appears self evident that, thanks to an organised regulatory system, the UK has not experienced cases similar to those now coming out of the US. E-cigarettes in the UK are screened for safety, and vapers have little incentive to turn to the black market because e-cigarettes are widely available anyway, not to mention promoted by recognised health bodies.
Rather than the generalised knee jerk conclusion that vaping is unsafe, what the US crisis implies is that non-standard vaping products must be avoided because these can be life-threatening. In many ways then, the US cases have only reinforced the argument for a healthy regulated vaping market. To focus on banning vaping completely—or removing flavored e-liquids—misses the root of the situation and undermines vaping’s potential as a smoking cessation tool.
While vaping isn’t 100% risk-free, it’s far far safer than smoking and unlikely to cause such severe consequences as long as you stick to buying your vaping devices and e-liquids form recognised trustworthy suppliers and manufacturers.