Another scare story about ecigs

Posted on August 30, 2016

'Vaping as bad as fags', screams the Sun today. The version in the Daily Telegraph, 'Vaping as bad for your heart as smoking cigarettes, study finds', is marginally more accurate, but still misleading. The claim is based on a recent study from Greece, presented at a cardiology conference in Rome, comparing the effect of ecigs with tobacco cigarettes on the aorta, the main artery into the heart. According to the Telegraph report: 'Trials found that a typical session using a device caused similar effects to the main heart artery as smoking a cigarette.' The lead researcher, Professor Charalambos Vlachopoulos from the University of Athens Medical School, said: 'We measured aortic stiffness. If the aorta is stiff you multiply your risk of dying, either from heart diseases or from other causes.'

Some perspective is required here. Nicotine is a drug - and a rather enjoyable one - that has a number of effects on the body - including raising blood pressure and causing arterial stiffness. Similar effects would therefore be found from other sources of nicotine, like nicotine patches and gum or smokeless tobacco products like snus. Caffeine has much the same effect, too. So while we need to be cautious about the findings of such a small study, involving 30 participants, the results are not altogether surprising.

What the study doesn't tell us is that ecigs increase our potential for health problems as much as tobacco cigarettes. The potential avenues for harm with smoking include lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, aka bronchitis and emphysema in old money), as well as a number of other potential pathways for causing heart disease and cancer. Short-term changes to the aorta are a relatively minor risk in comparison to these others.

What such misleading and fear-mongering reporting does do, however, is undermine informed choice. We should allow adults to make their own decisions about how they balance pleasure - from tobacco, ecigs or anything else - against the potential risks of harm. But that choice won't be meaningful if we leave people with the erroneous belief that ecigs carry just as much potential for causing disease as smoking.

That undermining of informed choice isn't helped by researchers like Vlachopoulos making half-cocked statements like this: 'There could be long-term heart dangers. They are far more dangerous than people realise… I wouldn't [ecigs] now as a method to give up smoking. I think the UK has rushed into adopting this method.' The real-world experience of vapers is of improving health and there is every reason to believe that there are long-term health benefits if smokers switch to ecigs. It is unhelpful for researchers to make speculative and alarmist statements.

There are also good reasons why many smokers are happy to remain smokers. Smoking is a different experience to vaping. While many vapers revel in the range of flavours and paraphernalia of ecigs, many smokers just want to light a match and have a fag. Many ecig users smoke and vape, depending on the circumstances. When it comes to smoking, vaping or quitting, it's better to let each individual decide for themselves - and a crucial element of making that decision is putting an end to bad health reporting.