Why do so many people think vaping is worse than smoking?

The science is clear: vaping is much less harmful than smoking. But half of Britain’s smokers still think it’s the other way round.

Vapes are annoying to some, incredibly moreish to others and positively shit for the environment. But while they come with a whole host of health risks, they are less harmful than smoking. That’s what science says. But a recent study, led by researchers from University College London and funded by Cancer Research UK, has found that more than half of smokers in England think that vaping is either worse for you than smoking or just as bad.

These researchers surveyed over 28,000 smokers to track people’s perceptions of vaping over time. Back in 2014, the general consensus was that vaping was a little less harmful than smoking, if not the same. But fast forward to the vape boom and people’s opinions have shifted. In June 2023, 57 per cent of respondents said they thought vaping was just as harmful as smoking or more harmful,” the survey reports, while only 27 per cent thought e‑cigarettes were less harmful.”

What’s changed? We spoke to some misguided smokers and broke down some common misconceptions below…

“Vaping is more addictive than smoking”

Three people I asked, independent from one another, said they thought vaping was worse because you can do it anywhere. No need to stand outside in the rain, no need to take a million breaks at work. This, along with plenty of irresistible flavours to choose from, they argued, gets people dangerously hooked on nicotine – which, by proxy, seems worse than smoking cigarettes.

This sentiment is echoed by a 23-year-old producer who told THE FACE that she’s planning to kick her long-term smoking habit. It’s been pretty crazy to witness this shift [towards vaping],” she says. There’s always been a clear divide between smokers and non-smokers with cigarettes. However, with vaping, I think the lines have been blurred. It’s extremely worrying to see how people who are non-smokers, or who don’t necessarily share the traits of your typical addictive personality type, are now developing addictions [as a result].”

The NHS notes that actively being addicted to nicotine isn’t harmful in and of itself, but the vehicle of getting it into your body often is. And, if we’re looking at the facts, smoking is the most harmful method because it contains more than 4,000 toxic substances, such as acrolein, carbon monoxide, acetaldehyde and cyanide” and repeated exposure to these toxins can cause cancer, lung disease, and diseases of the heart and circulation like heart attack and stroke”. On the nicotine-harm scale, smoking is followed by vaping and then nicotine gum. If they rebranded cigs as cyanide sticks”, I wonder if people would ever pick up a pack of fags in the first place.

“But vapes feel worse”

Three people told me that vaping physically feels worse on their body than smoking. My first response is to say that vaping is worse,” says a 25-year-old English student. When I vape for a night, I really feel it the next day.” These thoughts were echoed by a journalist of the same age: Whenever I vape, I get horrendous chest pain that I don’t from rollies.”

I couldn’t find any specific research on why vaping can feel harsher than smoking for some people, but I did find plenty of evidence that, while less harmful than, vaping is by no means risk-free. After all, drawing anything other than air into your lungs is never going to be good for you, right? According to the NHS, common side effects of vaping include coughing, shortness of breath and headaches. One study has also found that the long-term use of electronic cigarettes, or vaping products, can significantly impair the function of the body’s blood vessels, increasing the risk for cardiovascular disease”.

Having said that, vaping is still the lesser of two evils. In fact, in 2014 a group of drug experts found that it is overall about 25 times less harmful than cigarettes. Cigarettes are the nicotine product causing by far the most harm to users and others in the world today,” the researchers concluded. Attempts to switch to non-combusted sources of nicotine should be encouraged as the harms from these products are much lower.”

“Smoking is definitely worse”

Fucking hell, most certainly smoking [is more harmful],” a 25-year-old charity worker, who smokes himself, says. I am skeptical of the safety of e‑cigarettes, and for sure the accessibility and range of palatable flavours make it easier for increased nicotine consumption, but I think the damaging effects of tobacco are well-documented enough to realise the belly of the beast is lined with fag butts.”

He’s right. According to NHS guidance, switching from smoking to vaping immediately reduces health risks.”They add: Evidence shows that vaping is substantially less harmful than smoking. Vaping exposes users to far fewer toxins and at lower levels than smoking cigarettes [or roll-ups].”

If you smoke rollies or cigs and you’ve struggled to quit cold turkey, vaping can be a route to reducing harm. But if you’ve never smoked, why start putting nicotine in your body? It’s a shit drug – one that’s highly addictive and can gradually mess your health up. Deciding to start on nicotine in 2024, when we’re well aware of the risks, is like posting on Facebook or starting a podcast about NFTs. It’s out of fashion, and you should definitely think about giving it up altogether.

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