The headline statistics from the annual ASH survey on vaping appear great at first glance. Vapers now number 2.9 million in the UK and for the first time ex smokers outnumber current smokers. Is this news really all it's cracked up to be though?
No. As ASH point out in their press release:
“The rapid growth in e-cigarette use has come to an end while over a third of smokers have still never tried e-cigarettes, saying the main reasons are concerns about the safety and addictiveness of e-cigarettes. It’s very important smokers realise that vaping is much, much less harmful than smoking.”
It is certainly true that public misperceptions about the risk of vaping relative to smoking have played a significant role in discouraging many smokers to switch to the very much safer alternative. Vaping is estimated to be at least 95% safer than smoking for the consumer, and there are no known risks for bystanders. But what is driving that misperception? What do we do with potentially dangerous products? We restrict their availability, we restrict their use, we restrict the advertising of them, we stifle their innovation via regulations and we force the manufacturers to emblazon them with scary warnings - just as the EU TPD and its UK incarnation the TRPR plus a myriad of public and private space usage bans have done with e-cigarettes. It's hardly surprising that the public then seize upon every garbage media report of shoddy science that surfaces and believes it to be true - the government has all but told them so in its regulation of the products.
But that is not the end of it. Another probable reason for the plateau in numbers of people switching from smoking to vaping is also contained in the ASH press release:
"The ASH survey found that only 6% of vapers use nicotine above the TPD maximum of 20 mg/ml"
"Only". As we pointed out this time last year, that is a lot of people to write off. Last year the survey showed that 9% of people were affected which translated to 250,000 people. This year it is 174,000. To put those numbers into perspective, in the year April 2015 to March 2016 the entire NHS Stop Smoking Service reported 194,000 4 week self reported quits at a cost of in excess of £90 million (7 authorities did not report their costs). Not all of those 174,000 people will fail to switch or relapse to smoking after higher strength liquids are banned on May 20th, but every single one of them is at risk of that if they cannot obtain nicotine containing liquid at a strength they require. If it is ever suggested that we save £90 million by disbanding Stop Smoking Services ASH will quite rightly complain - the services are still very cost effective and many people need the extra support - but ASH and the UK Government are apparently quite happy to write off a similar number of people who have taken control of their own health by switching to vaping at no cost to the state.
The figures in the ASH survey are however, misleading. It is well known that very many people use higher strength liquids when they first start vaping and then reduce the strength as their techniques improve or they move to more highly powered devices. Informal surveys among vapers indicate that as many as one in three people used strengths above 20mg/ml when they first started. The ASH survey does not ask this question, but it is likely therefore that up to 500,000 of the current ex smoking vapers may have found switching more difficult had higher strengths not been available.
The ASH findings of a plateau in the number of e-cigarette users, an increase in the number of ex compared to current smokers and a decrease in the numbers using higher strength liquid all indicate that we are already seeing not only the effects of the thoroughly irresponsible media (and scientific) reporting on this subject but also the first effects of the TPD. Higher strength liquids all but disappeared months ago from most shops as they prepared for compliance, as did advertising. The reason that vaping numbers have stalled may very well be because smokers are no longer switching and the sample used in the survey now contains a higher proportion of more experienced vapers, who tend to use lower strength liquids. This is a perfect example of how to take something that was improving lives in the real world and utterly bugger it up. The ASH survey illustrates that beautifully.