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Vaping and e-cigarettes

Written by Healthwords's team of doctors and pharmacists based in UK | Updated: 26.01.2023 | 3 min read

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 replacement.

But e-cigarettes are still relatively new and 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, they are thought to pose around 5% of the risk of cigarettes at the most. They act as a useful stop-smoking aid, alongside guidance in how to change your patterns of behaviour. This is with a view to cutting down and hopefully stopping for good.

Are they available on the NHS?

E-cigarettes are not funded by the NHS, you need to buy your vaping device and liquid. The only exception is for pregnant women, who can get vouchers to buy these.

Studies show that you are far more likely to quit smoking with 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. But they can’t prescribe them.

They can prescribe other nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), such as skin patches, lozenges, gum or breath sprays. NRT can be given alone or alongside drug treatments such as Champix (varenicline) and Zyban (bupropion hydrochloride).

Do they contain nicotine and harmful chemicals?

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 are potentially chemicals used for flavourings. Ensuring high-quality products, heating elements, and reputable brands from markets such as New Zealand and the UK are good ways to vape risk-free.

There were cases of severe lung damage related to vaping a few years ago in 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.

Can I take up vaping, even if I don’t smoke?

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 – if you need any more incentive to quit.

Is vaping safe around children and in pregnancy?

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 no evidence that e-cigarettes are harmful in pregnancy. Your baby will be in considerably better health for you switching to e-cigarettes than continuing to smoke. However, it’s always better to avoid any unnecessary chemicals, so if you’ve quit smoking, we would also support stopping vaping through pregnancy, until further safety data is available.

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