Doctors divided over e-cigarette safety

A new report says that the number of UK e-cigarette ‘vapers’ has tripled in the last two years. Some hail them as a safe smoking miracle, but are they a health disaster waiting to happen?

Tobacco is ‘a black and stinking perfume’, ‘loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose’ and ‘dangerous to the lungs’. This is not the complaint of a new anti-smoking campaign, but of King James I in 1604. Instead of supporting the king, England’s top doctors disagreed. They met to smoke their pipes and to praise the health benefits of smoking.

Britain’s medical experts have long since revised their opinion and, since 1970, the number of UK smokers has fallen from almost half the adult population to a quarter, some 10m, today.

But electronic-cigarette users are on the rise. A new report by anti-tobacco charity ASH says their numbers have tripled in just two years, from 700,000 to 2.1m. They think two-thirds of them are smokers trying to quit and that one third have now weaned themselves off regular cigarettes.

With an e-cigarette the user experiences the effects of smoking’s addictive drug, nicotine, but without the cancer-causing tar released by the burning tobacco in ordinary cigarettes. The nicotine is inhaled in water vapour and so its users are called ‘vapers’ rather than smokers.

ASH suggests that vaping is helping tobacco addicts kick the habit, but many scientists worry that it may also be harmful. Trials have not yet shown they are any healthier than regular cigarettes, and some studies even suggest that the liquid they use might cause cancer and harm the lungs.

The British Medical Association has also warned that vaping could act as a ‘gateway’ to regular cigarette addiction and many worry that teenagers are being targeted. They fret that while smoking has been socially marginalised, e-cigarettes are making it normal again, and this may lead to health problems in the future.

The Welsh government wants vaping banned in public places and many doctors are calling for tighter regulation. Yet others cite examples of former 25-a-day chain-smokers who now only ever vape.

Smoke without fear?

While ASH’s report does not praise vaping, it says smokers are finding e-cigarettes a way to beat or at least reduce their cigarette addiction. Some warn that taxing or banning e-cigarettes would also makes it harder for people to give up their more harmful smoking addiction. While vaping may have unknown effects, they say the risk is worth taking.

Others are more cautious. E-cigarettes have not been around long enough for us to see their harmful consequences, but no one realised how bad tobacco was when it first arrived in England. They hope we do not repeat the mistake of those doctors who ignored King James 400 years ago.

You Decide

  1. Does the use of e-cigarettes risk making smoking seem normal again?
  2. ‘The government has no right to tax or regulate e-cigarettes until there is evidence that they are harmful.’ Do you agree?


  1. Some might say smoking tobacco was one of the most destructive discoveries in history. In pairs, think of five other discoveries or inventions mankind would have been better off without.
  2. Using the links in ‘Become an Expert’ for inspiration, write a speech for your class either arguing why we should trust e-cigarettes or be more wary of them.

Some People Say...

“Fear of e-cigarettes is just the fear of the unknown that we see with every great new invention.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t smoke, so how does this affect me?
E-cigarettes may make it much easier for someone you know to quit smoking, but it might also be doing them harm we don’t yet know about at the same time. Smoking affects anyone who pays taxes in the UK — experts claim that smoking costs the NHS £5bn every year, but tax on tobacco also raises over £12bn every year.
Could e-cigarettes end up causing as many deaths as normal cigarettes?
There may be dangers, but it is unlikely they would cause as much damage as cigarettes. Modern medical research would soon discover if they were seriously hazardous. Tobacco was first brought to the UK in the 16th century, and despite many not liking smoking, few understood its dangers until the 20th century.

Word Watch

Action on Smoking and Health, a highly-respected, award-winning research group established by the Royal College of Physicians in 1971. Ironically, it was the Royal College that dismissed King James I’s anti-smoking views 400 years ago.
E-cigarettes contain a chemical called propylene glycol, which is also found in soft drinks and salad dressings. While eating it is fine, the effects of inhaling it as a vapour are unknown. Other studies suggest that tiny particles of tin and chromium might also be inhaled.
A new US report entitled ‘Gateway to Addiction’ believes that the packaging of e-cigarettes, coupled with flavours like ‘cherry crush’ and ‘very berrylicious’, are deliberately targeting teenagers.
As of 2016, any e-cigarette on sale in the UK will have to be approved by the Medicine and Healthcare Products Agency, like any other drug. Yet the World Health Organisation wants to go further and see e-cigarettes taxed at the same level as tobacco, which would make them much more expensive.


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