What is vaping and is it safe?

Following the news that vape stores have opened in two NHS hospitals in an effort to try to help people stop smoking, we look at what e-cigarettes are and how safe they are thought to be.

– What is vaping?

Vaping is done using e-cigarettes. These are battery-operated devices, known as vapes, through which users inhale nicotine in a vapour, as opposed to smoke. They heat a solution – an e-liquid – which usually contains nicotine, propylene glycol and/or vegetable glycerine, and flavourings.

E-cigarettes do not burn tobacco or produce tar or carbon monoxide, two of the most damaging elements in tobacco smoke, according to the NHS website which gives advice to people who are trying to quit smoking.

– Is it better than smoking?

Public Health England (PHE) has campaigned for cigarette smokers to switch to e-cigarettes, arguing they are 95% less harmful than tobacco smoking.

Professor John Newton, director of health improvement at PHE, has said there is “widespread academic and clinical consensus that while not without risk, vaping is far less harmful than smoking”.

He said the view is held by many organisations worldwide, including the Royal College of Physicians, Cancer Research UK, the British Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences in the US.

Prof Newton said: “There is no situation where it would be better for your health to continue smoking rather than switching completely to vaping.”

– But is it harmful?

Prof Newton acknowledged that while PHE advice is based on what current evidence suggests, research in the area of vaping “continues to emerge”.

He said the UK has some of the world’s strictest e-cigarette regulations, including advertising restrictions, minimum age of sale and maximum nicotine content.

The NHS says on its website that while the liquid and vapour in e-cigarettes contain some potentially harmful chemicals also found in cigarette smoke, they are at much lower levels.

– Does everyone agree?

No. There are strongly held and contrasting views among health professionals on the subject.

In April Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said there are enough grounds for “serious concerns” around vaping.

He told PA: “We haven’t had e-cigarettes for long enough to know the true effects.”

Prof McKee added: “Given the short-term effects on lung function and cardiovascular effects, there is enough evidence to say we should be very, very careful.”

And last month health experts called for e-cigarette advertisements that may appeal to children to be banned.

Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said that while smokers switching to e-cigarettes is a welcome move, young people forming a vaping habit is not.

He said: “E-cigarettes are not ‘safe’ – they still contain nicotine – and this rise in use, alongside glamorous marketing campaigns from manufacturers, creates yet another habit that is attractive to young people.”

– Is vaping popular and among which groups?

Figures analysed by NHS Digital show that e-cigarette use continues to rise, with 6.3% of adults vaping in 2018, up from 5.5% the previous year.

Just over half (51.5%) of those vaping said it was to help them quit smoking.

A report commissioned by PHE and published in February said that regular use of e-cigarettes among young people remains low – but its figures showed that the number of UK children and teenagers trying vaping has doubled in recent years.

San Francisco recently became the first US city to ban sales of e-cigarettes until their effects on health are better established.

But Juul, the most popular e-cigarette producer in the US – whose product is now available in the UK – said the move would drive smokers back to cigarettes and create a black market.