BIG DEBATE: E-cigarettes - a better option or a health risk?

E-cigarettes - friend or foe?

E-cigarettes - friend or foe? - Credit: Archant

The popularity of e-cigarettes has soared since they were first introduced to the UK about a decade ago, with current estimates suggesting that there are 2.1 million users in Great Britain alone.

Dr Lynne Dawkins thinks e-cigarettes can be positive

Dr Lynne Dawkins thinks e-cigarettes can be positive - Credit: Archant

However, with their associated health risks in question and the World Health Organisation recently calling for their use to be banned in public places and workplaces, are e-cigarettes a good thing?

Dr Lynne Dawkins, an experimental psychologist at the University of East London, writes in support


Cigarette smoking kills. 82,000 people die every year from their effects in England alone. But the burning question now is, ‘are e-cigarettes a better alternative?’

Before answering this, there are two other questions we must consider first.

Firstly, do e-cigs help cigarette smokers give up?

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Research from a survey conducted at the University of East London by Dawkins and colleagues revealed that the overwhelming majority reported using the devices as a way of kicking the habit altogether.

The findings, which were published in the journal Addiction, show that nearly 75 per cent of respondents started using e-cigarettes as a complete alternative to smoking.

In one of the most significant findings, 86 pc of those surveyed confirmed they had not smoked cigarettes for several weeks or months since using the e-cigarette, and the majority of people felt their health had improved since using the devices. More recently, in a survey of smokers in England, Brown and colleagues reported that smokers using e-cigarettes were more likely to have quit smoking than those using traditional nicotine replacement therapies (20 pc vs. 10 pc).

Secondly, are e-cigs free from health risks?

E-cigarettes may not be absolutely safe for the user, but they are definitely a far less harmful alternative to cigarettes.

And regarding the effects of the vapour on bystanders there is currently no evidence of harm associated with e-cigarette fumes to on-lookers although this requires continuous monitoring. An extensive review of the effects of toxicants in e-cigarette vapour published this year concluded that the risks of e-cigarettes to the user are very low, and exposure to those nearby is even lower and “thus pose no apparent concern”.

Whilst ingesting nicotine could not be described as a ‘healthy’ activity, the safety issues associated with e-cigarettes tend to be exaggerated. The effects of overly harsh regulation could actually do more harm than good, if it discourages smokers from switching from a less harmful activity.


Frances Clarke, health project manager for Community Links, tells of her concerns:


I am concerned about the young children I see in the street smoking e-cigarettes and shisha pens.

As a health worker for Community Links I spend time in schools and sixth forms talking about the serious health risks of smoking.

Eighty per cent of people who get lung cancer smoke.

The process of smoking, or vaping as it is called, is different in e-cigarettes, and they do not contain many of the chemicals that ordinary cigarettes do.

But, they can contain nicotine and it is the nicotine that is addictive.

I am worried that e-cigarettes are going to trap children and young people into nicotine addiction which will lead them onto smoking tobacco.

If a young person does not smoke by the age of 20, they are very unlikely to smoke.

These young years are the vital ones, if we start smoking young, it is so difficult to give up.

Shisha pens, or e-shisha, are a portable version of shisha smoking which is widespread in east London.

The risks of shisha are not widely known, people describe it as a healthy way to socialise. It is not.

Each shisha session lasts from 20 to 60 minutes and is equivalent to 50 to 150 cigarette puffs.

Encouraging children to gain this habit is potentially very harmful.

E-cigarettes and e-shisha are widely available to children, there are currently no age restrictions, they can be bought in most local shops.

They are affordable, in attractive colours and sometimes have a pretty scent.

The tobacco companies are producing many of these products, is this a goodwill gesture to help smokers quit?

Or is it that these companies are actively searching for new markets?

Undoubtedly, with the reduction in numbers of smokers they are keen to recruit new young smokers who will be their customers for years if not for life.

If you would like to volunteer to raise awareness of cancer locally please contact me by emailing

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