Electronic cigarettes are cheaper, more socially acceptable and – most importantly – less harmful than traditional cigarettes. In fact, Public Health England (PHE) claim they are at least 95 percent less harmful than their tobacco-burning counterparts. So why are they suffering from an image problem?
Global electronic cigarette sales have witnessed astonishing growth in recent years, jumping from $1.5bn in 2013 to $10bn in 2017. But statistics now suggest that their popularity is starting to plateau. In the US, growth is down from triple figures to double digits. In the UK, fewer people are using electronic cigarettes as a quitting tool in 2017 than a year previously, dropping from 69 percent to 62 percent.
According to PHE, electronic cigarette use has plateaued at approximately 6% of the adult population.
It is now estimated that the number of smokers using electronic cigarettes to quit has plummeted from a one-time high of 800,000 to as low as 100,000. Quite what is behind this trend is hard to pin down, but continued scepticism over electronic cigarettes – despite their apparent advantages – appears to be at the nub of the issue. At least half of smokers believe that electronic cigarettes are just as harmful to their health as normal cigarettes.
According to PHE, much of that revolves around the role of nicotine, particularly its misunderstood impact on health and fears of addiction. Even more worryingly for countries which are encouraging their use as part of a harm reduction strategy, the number of people who believe they are more harmful than normal cigarettes is growing.
That helps explain why more than a third of smokers have never tried electronic variants.
What has not helped is a small yet steady trickle of negative media coverage, often hanging around the lack of long-term research into the impact of electronic cigarettes. There is also continued resistance to electronic cigarettes from a number of influential countries across the globe such as the US and Australia.
This leaves countries like the UK in a quandary. From just 2015 to 2016, the national smoking rate dropped from 17.2 percent to 15.8 – a significant fall that many experts are attributing to the rise in popularity of electronic cigarettes.
Yet with a growing lack of awareness regarding the benefits of switching, there is a fear that a vital tool in the quest to cut smoking numbers may be lost. What does not help is that, with the Tobacco Products Directive banning sales of nicotine containing e-liquids above 20mg/ml, many smokers are also put off for fear of not receiving enough of a nicotine hit from electronic cigarettes.
Something which could change that is the arrival of heat-not-burn technology, which works by heating tobacco to far lower temperatures than that of traditional cigarettes. Recent findings from both the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in the UK and Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment suggest that heat-not-burn is less harmful than traditional cigarettes.
Whether that will be enough to lure smokers onto heat-not-burn remains to be seen, but there is a hope that offering smokers a half-way house option between cigarettes and vaping could provide the answer. Heat-not-burn is yet to be approved in both the UK and US though, so as things stand, PHE needs to work harder to spread the word on electronic cigarettes.