The latest annual report by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) on “Use of e-cigarettes (vapes) among adults in Great Britain” has just been released and concludes that there are now around 4.3 million vapers in England, Scotland and Wales, a significant increase from 3.6 million in 2021.

The report follows a survey of over 13,000 people conducted by polling company, YouGov, earlier this year and contains detailed analysis of current trends in vaping in the country. It also finds that of those who say they vape, 2.4 million are now former smokers having quit smoking entirely.

These are welcome figures and reinforce our belief that tobacco harm reduction can deliver favourable results if governments allow it to do so as, to its credit, the UK government has done by leading the world in its endorsement of vaping.

The data also offer some telling signs of how damaging media misinformation has been in recent years and how future tobacco policy could be tweaked to achieve even better results.

There are still 28% of smokers who have never tried an e-cigarette. The reasons given point towards their being scared away from vaping by negative coverage they have seen and read in the media. For example, 21% of smokers said that they were afraid of replacing one addiction for another, and 23% said they are concerned that vaping is not safe enough or that they did not know enough about the products. What’s more, 36% of smokers who have not tried a vape believe that vaping is equally or more harmful than smoking, and a further 26% simply don’t know.

It is clear from this that there is still the need for the public to be much better educated about vaping products, specifically, and on the concept of harm reduction in general. The fact that only 14% of smokers correctly believe that vaping is “a lot less harmful” than combustible tobacco use can only deter hundreds of thousands from trying vaping and therefore means a large cohort of the population is needlessly smoking when they could be getting nicotine in a far safer form.  

Encouragingly, the data confirm points that the NNA and other consumer groups have been making since the early days of vaping. Namely, that vaping products are a direct substitute for smoking, which some vaping opponents still try to deny, with ASH finding that people who vape everyday smoke on average less than those who smoke non-daily. The report also confirms the importance of flavours, which the NNA and other consumer groups have always highlighted, but which opponents claim are only designed to attract children. The ASH report found that the most popular flavours were fruit flavours, favoured by 41%, followed by menthol by 19%. Only 16% of all adult vapers use a tobacco flavour. 

Significantly, the data tend to align with the NNA view that there is still room for reform of vaping and nicotine policy in the UK. 47% of smokers have tried a vaping product but no longer use one, suggesting that, for many, e-cigarettes are not working for them. 23% of these said vaping was not similar enough to smoking and 17% said it did not help with their cravings. The NNA has consistently called for the nicotine limit of 20mg/ml to be increased in order for vaping to be a more attractive alternative for smokers, something that can be done now that the UK has left the EU. A higher limit could be useful in attracting smokers for whom the current limit is not working. 

Additionally, the data suggest that vaping may not be the best alternative for many smokers. The NNA believes all lower risk nicotine products have their place as a smoking substitute and that they should be well promoted and made widely available. However, there is still reticence to promote other reduced risk products like heated tobacco, snus and nicotine pouches to smokers in the UK.

The ASH report did not ask about heated tobacco this year but in 2021, only a paltry 14% of smokers were aware that heated tobacco existed. Likewise, although ASH report that 44% of the public are aware of nicotine pouches, only 3.9% have ever tried one. Snus is banned here due to the UK adhering to the Tobacco Products Directive, but the ban can be lifted post-Brexit. Sweden boasts by far the lowest smoking rate in Europe and Norway is seeing its first ever smokefree generation due to snus use, with a survey earlier this year finding only 1% of 16-24 year old Norwegians smoked. It makes no sense to prohibit an alternative which could be the product which helps many smokers quit.

Lastly, many media articles have predictably attempted to create a scare story around ASH’s survey by highlighting a rise in vaping by never smokers. Considering that smoking rates in Great Britain are still declining, this is a non-story. We contend that what we are seeing is a change in the way people initiate use of nicotine, which will always be enjoyed by a proportion of the population as has been commonplace for thousands of years. 25 years ago, the overwhelming majority of nicotine use was with combustible tobacco, but we now have a generational shift where young adults are choosing far safer products instead of smoking.

In ASH’s report, they declare that a “vaping revolution” has taken place over the past decade. We agree, and the latest statistics bear that out. It is important that we learn from the survey results and ensure that better information is provided for smokers, that journalists and irresponsible academics are persuaded to stop peddling harmful misinformation, and that we refine public health policy to fully realise the potential that lower risk non-combustible nicotine products can provide.

You can read the full ASH report here.