If vaping wasn’t a common dinner table topic already, a recent report from the end of 2018 made it one overnight. Teens started vaping in record numbers this past year, prompting the Surgeon General to weigh in. But while the FDA wages war on vaping in America, researchers in Britain believe that a significant number of people in the UK tend to overestimate how dangerous vaping actually is.
In a paper released Thursday in the journal Addiction, psychologist Leonie Brose, Ph.D., a senior lecturer who studies addiction at Kings College London, revealed the results a survey examining how people perceive the comparative risks of smoking and vaping. Overall she found that her 1,720 respondents were split over which habit was more dangerous. More than half — 57.3 percent — believed that e-cigarettes were less dangerous than traditional tobacco, 21.8 percent thought the two methods were equally dangerous, 17.6 percent had no idea, and about 3 percent thought vaping was more dangerous than smoking. But what’s more interesting is why there appears to be such a lack of consensus.
Roughly nine out of ten of her participants believed that nicotine — which is present in traditional tobacco products and some vape juices — is a major part of why smoking is so harmful. Nearly four out of ten believed it was responsible for smoking’s link to cancer. Her analysis also notes that “misattributing smoking harms to nicotine” was associated with increased skepticism about vaping.
“Many campaigns have focused on nicotine and not separated out the harm from smoking,” Brose tells Inverse. “The main harm comes from combustion, but many people will not be aware of that.”
Generally speaking, both cigarettes and e-cigarettes contain nicotine (though not all vape juice has nicotine in it). But there’s a big difference in how each device functions. When you light a cigarette, you begin the process of combustion and create smoke, which releases roughly 250 known toxins like benzene and arsenic. Vapes don’t actually burn the substance in them, instead, they heat a liquid to produce vapor, not smoke. In that sense, vapes sidestep that particular evil, though there are still concerns about the health effects of vaping, stemming from the various flavoring agents in e-liquid.
“There may be risks [to vaping] that have not been identified,” Brose admits. “But I am more concerned about the very well established risks from smoking, e.g. at least one in two long-term smokers die from smoking on average.”
Because vapes don’t produce smoke, it can be argued that e-cigarettes are simply safer alternatives to traditional tobacco products that help smokers quit. Even during his widespread declaration that vaping was an “epidemic,” US Surgeon General Jerome Adams was careful to highlight that it could be one way to wean people off cigarettes by delivering nicotine another way — similar to a nicotine patch or nicotine gum.
However, to view vaping and traditional smoking as interchangeable methods of nicotine delivery ignores some of the more complex aspects of addiction. Sure, nicotine itself is addictive. The idea that smokers are simply addicted to a chemical and not to the social and behavioral aspects of the habit itself is a limited way to view the problem — no to mention an angle that has been pushed by tobacco companies in the past.
That’s not to say that e-cigarettes haven’t been helpful for many individuals looking to kick smoking habits. But with conflicting papers, as well as its astronomical rise among teens, it seems people are becoming more skeptical of vaping as it becomes more common. Brose’s survey captured this effect when she conducted a similar survey several years ago. In 2012, she found that 66.6 percent of her respondents believed that vaping was less dangerous than smoking. That number has decreased by nearly 10 percent compared to her most recent numbers, and 48.3 percent of her survey respondents bemoaned the lack of research around e-cigarettes.
Generally, this trend could be reflective of skepticism as vaping comes of age. The more we learn about it, the less people are willing to embrace the idea that it’s a cure-all for quitting smoking.