If you’ve been following the news about vaping, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s the most dangerous hobby since Russian Roulette. If an exploding battery doesn’t blow you to bits, you’ll probably die of invisible formaldehyde cancer, popcorn lung or ultra-fine particles. Even if you survive all that, you won’t be able to have any kids because the flavors will sterilize you.
Or maybe not. There’s been a lot of talk about “fake news” since the Presidential election, but as any vaping advocate can tell you, it’s been going on for a while. Many of the scare stories about vapor products have been wildly exaggerated; some others have basically just been made up.
So, is vaping safe? If you’re a vaper, or a smoker thinking about switching, that’s a question you definitely want answered. Nearly half of Americans now believe vapor products are as harmful – or even more so – as tobacco cigarettes. Are they right?
What does “safe” mean?
The first thing we need to look at is what exactly do we mean by “safe”? Are we looking at complete safety, a complete absence of any risk at all? If that’s the standard we’re measuring by then no, vaping isn’t safe. That’s because, by this standard, nothing is safe.
Everything we do carries some risk. Tens of thousands of people every year injure themselves in the kitchen – burns, scalds and knife cuts are all common injuries. That’s seen as an acceptable risk, because we have to eat, but then eating itself isn’t safe – about 5,000 Americans die of food poisoning every year and another 2,500 choke to death, usually on chunks of hot dog. Even if you manage to survive eating it you’re not out of the woods yet – around 325,000 people a year die in the USA from obesity-related health problems, and another 200,000 from insufficient exercise.
But wait, exercise isn’t safe either. Around 700 cyclists are killed every year in the USA, and 3.5 million children under the age of 14 suffer sports injuries. A third of serious brain injuries among young people are caused by sports. Hundreds of joggers and runners suffer serious injuries every year from falls or traffic accidents.
Every year around 600 Americans are accidentally shot dead, 2,000 drown, more than 25,000 are killed in accidental falls and a staggering 42,000 die in automobile accidents. Meanwhile, how many have died from vaping?
That’s right – there hasn’t been a single death linked to vaping in the almost ten years since the devices went on sale. And despite the recent scares about battery fires, between 2009 and 2014 only 25 cases were reported in the USA. Nine people were burned, two seriously, and none died. That’s in five years. In August and September last year, 92 Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphones caught fire in the USA. Twenty-six people suffered burns.
So while we can’t say vaping is completely risk-free, it does seem to be safer than many other things we do. If you’re happy to get in your car and drive, the additional risk of vaping probably isn’t something you need to worry about too much.
Safer than smoking?
Of course, instead of asking if vaping is completely safe – an unrealistic standard, as we’ve seen – maybe we should be asking if it’s safer than smoking. After all, nearly all vapers either smoke or used to. Hard numbers aren’t easy to find for the USA, but in the UK – which has a similar vaping culture and fewer government regulations – only 0.2% of regular vapers have never smoked.
If almost all vapers are using vapor products as a replacement for lit tobacco, what matters is whether or not this is reducing the risk for them. Although 47% of Americans believe vaping is at least as dangerous as smoking, the evidence on this is actually very clear – it’s much safer.
In 2015 Public Health England, the government agency that runs the world’s largest health service, published a huge and detailed report on vaping. It was the most in-depth study that had ever been done, citing 185 different studies, and it found that if a smoker switches to vaping they’re eliminating at least 95% of the risk. In 2016 the Royal College of Physicians – which warned about the dangers of smoking in 1962, two years before the US Surgeon General did – published its own study that also found vaping to be 95% safer.
Most vapers are used to hearing complaints like, “You haven’t really quit; you’re still using nicotine.” Despite what most people seem to believe, it isn’t the nicotine in a cigarette that kills you. In fact nicotine, at the doses you get from vaping or even smoking, is basically harmless. What kills smokers is the array of toxic chemicals created when things burn. Cyanide, tar, nitrosamines and – worst of all – carbon dioxide are all released when tobacco burns. In fact a tobacco-free herbal cigarette is just as bad for you as a Marlboro Red, because it burns. Inhaling smoke kills; inhaling nicotine does not.
What comes out of your e-cigarette isn’t just water vapor, but it also isn’t smoke. That means there’s no tar and no carbon monoxide, and that means almost all the danger of smoking is instantly eliminated. Yes, there might be some risk from some of the flavourings – although nobody’s got sick from them yet – but compared to inhaling a lungful of smoke? It’s fairly insignificant.
Here’s a final thought. Around one in two smokers will die from a smoking-related disease – some scientists are now saying it could be two in three. If vaping eliminated 95% of that death toll it would be a pretty impressive health gain – but that remaining 5% of the risk doesn’t mean 5% of the number of deaths. It just means 5% of the total harm. As far as we can tell right now, the 95% vapers avoid is lung cancer, COPD and cardiac arrest. The 5% that’s left is a few people suffering from a dry throat or acne, plus the completely theoretical “harm” of “nicotine addiction.”
Vaping probably isn’t 100% safe; as we’ve seen nothing is 100% safe. On the other hand it’s safe enough that, despite there being about nine million vapers in the USA and over 30 million worldwide, nobody has died from it yet. Every year, 450 Americans are killed falling out of bed. If vaping is less dangerous than lying in bed, that’s probably safe enough for most people.