Smoke and mirrors: what is happening to e-cigs?

Have e-cigarettes prematurely peaked? A consumer survey by Smoking in England and researchers at University College London suggests usage has “taken a downturn”.

The percentage of smokers and recent ex- smokers in the sample who are vaping has fallen from a high of 21% to 17%. In fact, the figure has been fairly flat since the beginning of 2013.

On the other hand, Nielsen reported at the end of 2014 that sales through supermarkets and grocers were up 50% year on year, and was bullish about the future.

Specialist vaping shops continue to spring up, too. There remains a clear opportunity for retailers, but the market faces a threat.

Leading public health academic Professor Peter Hayek told the News Medical website last week that e-cig sales have “stalled or even declined”. Part of the reason, he said, could be a limited market for a slower and lower nicotine delivery, but a “much more likely explanation” is the campaign that’s being waged against the devices.

Hardly a week goes by now without some piece of research pointing up the health risks of vaping. Last month a study found “hidden formaldehyde” in e-cigs, and the mass media quickly followed up with headlines warning that the presence of the carcinogen meant that vaping was potentially 10 times more deadly than smoking tobacco.

In fact, the formaldehyde only appeared after the nicotine liquid was heated to such a level that it would be completely unpalatable. It’s like not drinking a cup of tea because it will burn your mouth without recognising that usual practice is to blow on it first to cool it down.

Last week, another piece of research concluded that vaping damages the lungs. The little lungs of mice, that is, which were repeatedly subjected to e-cig vapour way in excess of what a human being might inhale, causing some to die in this pointless experiment.

Bend anything hard enough and it’s going to break. And simply finding that e-cigs pose a risk in certain conditions really misses the point.

As Professor John Britton, director of the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies, told the Independent: “What matters here is not a comparison of the effects of e-cigarette vapour compared with nothing, but the effects compared with those of tobacco smoke.”

In much of the world, such spurious research has taken hold, however. The World Health Organisation recommends that e-cigs are restricted in much the same way as tobacco. In the UK the issue has split public health professionals, but key organisations, such as Action on Smoking & Health, have made a clear case for the benefits of vaping.

It joined the signatories of a document presented to parliament last year that declared upfront that “e-cigarettes are much less harmful than smoking” – around 20 times less harmful, at a conservative estimate.

One fear is that e-cigs could be a “gateway” to tobacco for young people, but the numbers of vapers who don’t already smoke are almost negligible. Indeed, evidence is growing that e-cigs are helping a minority of smokers who not only switch to vaping but give up nicotine altogether.

According to the Smoking in England survey, e-cigs have become the most popular aid to quitting – though most don’t use any aid at all – and these numbers are holding up.

“E-cigarettes may have helped approximately 20,000 smokers stop last year who would not have stopped otherwise,” the report authors write.

The rise of vaping correlates with the highest quit success rates since the period following the ban on smoking in public places, and the decline in e-cig use is in line with an overall decline in nicotine use, including other substitutes for tobacco such as patches and gums.

This is worth knowing. There are, broadly, two kinds of vaper – what you might call the recreational user and those who consciously turn to e-cigs to help give up or cut down on smoking.

And, although they probably don’t exactly map the different consumers, there also seem to be two retail markets.

Walk into your local specialist vaping store and you’ll see a bewildering array of devices in all shapes, sizes and colours, and an equally wide array of flavours. It’s like a boutique, staffed by people in tune with the latest fashions and up to speed with the latest health debates.

But the Smoking in England survey suggests there is a larger market for the more functional consumption of e-cigs, and that’s where off- licences can claim a slice of the sales by offering a relatively limited range.

You might consider, though, going beyond the cartridge-type e-cig made to look like a cigarette and stock the rechargeable “pens” or “tanks” that allow the vaper to choose from a range of flavours and better manage their nicotine intake.

And with so many health scare stories flying around you certainly need to be armed with some knowledge and prepared to advise the confused and uncertain.

Perhaps e-cigs won’t entirely replace tobacco. Perhaps they’re not the answer for everyone trying to quit tobacco. But there’s a fight going on to prevent over-regulation and sensational headlines deterring people they might help give up from giving them a try.

And retailers can play a part in the education process.

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