Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) or ‘vapes’ have become a popular substitute for smoking in recent years. They offer two ways to help stop smoking: they give you something to hold and draw on, imitate a cigarette, and they can provide nicotine as an alternative means of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). In the UK over 3 million people now use an e-cigarette every day.
However, e-cigarettes are still relatively new and so there is no data available yet as to their long-term safety over 20 or 30 years of use. Research is ongoing to determine their safety, whether they are effective at stopping smoking, and to accurately quantify how much less harmful than tobacco cigarettes they are.
While it’s too early to definitely define the long-term effects, regulated e-cigarettes are thought to cause significantly fewer risks to long-term health than smoking cigarettes. This is because it is not nicotine that causes the serious health problems linked to smoking, but the effects of inhaling tobacco smoke. There is no tobacco in an e-cigarette. They act as a useful stop-smoking aid, alongside guidance in how to change your patterns of behaviour with a view to cutting down and hopefully stopping for good.
E-cigarettes are not funded by the NHS so you need to buy your vaping device and liquid from regulated outlets such as pharmacies and supermarkets. Studies show that you are far more likely to quit smoking by using a combination of NRT or medication and specialist support, and the NHS quit smoking services are there to help you through every step. They can advise on e-cigarettes and arm you with the knowledge of finding the safest products, how to use them and when to wean yourself off them, although they can’t prescribe them.
They can prescribe other nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), such as skin patches, lozenges, gum or inhalators. NRT can be given alone or alongside drug treatments such as Champix (varenicline) and Zyban (bupropion hydrochloride). The best chances of quitting with NRT are by using combination or double NRT, where a long-acting type (such as a patch) is used with a quick-acting type if there is a craving to smoke.
E-cigarettes usually contain nicotine, which is the addictive chemical in tobacco. They can be used instead of other NRT therapies, giving you the nicotine hit you need to stop cravings. This is a short-term measure in your road to quitting cigarettes, as your body gradually gets used to life without nicotine.
E-cigarettes do not contain tobacco, which when burnt, becomes the harmful component of cigarettes. The potentially harmful substances in e-cigarettes include the chemicals used for flavouring them so ensuring you use high-quality products, heating elements, and reputable brands are good ways to help reduce vaping risks.
There were cases of severe lung damage related to vaping several years ago in one part of the US, but the e-cigarettes used were found to be contaminated with illicit drugs and specific harmful substances which are banned in most e-cigarette markets.
The UK medical authorities advise not to take up vaping if you are not trying to cut down or give up smoking. It is not risk-free, as they are delivering chemicals to the lungs, and research of long-term effects is unknown so far. It is also advised to use them solely as a stop-smoking aid, rather than continuing to use them after you have successfully quit cigarettes.
It’s worth considering the financial burden that e-cigarettes add, as they can be expensive, although it's estimated that vaping costs less than half as much as smoking at present.
We are used to the concept of passive smoking, where smoke causes damage to those around you over time. E-cigarettes do not release damaging fumes and poisonous chemicals to your children or anyone else nearby. However, some find the vapour or misting released is unpleasant, and you may consider choosing a device that allows this feature to be turned off.
There is currently no evidence that e-cigarettes are harmful in pregnancy and we know how damaging smoking is to an unborn baby so your baby will be in considerably better health if you switch to e-cigarettes rather than continuing to smoke. However, it’s always better to avoid exposure to any unnecessary chemicals in pregnancy so if you’ve quit smoking, we would also advise avoiding vaping through pregnancy, until further long-term safety data is available.
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