Is Australia making a big mistake in not legalising the use of electronic cigarettes containing nicotine?
Yes, according to the evidence presented in a BBC Science documentary – Miracle or Menace on Foxtel’s BBC Knowledge channel on Wednesday 12 January.
Their use is highly controversial in this country, unlike in the United Kingdom where they are legally embraced as an invaluable aid for those wanting to give up cigarette smoking.
Medical science journalist and presenter Dr Michael Mosley, who is renowned for his interrogation of contemporary health issues, took a detailed look at the devices.
He regularly inserts his own body into experiments and, this time, with a bucket at his side, he took up smoking a traditional cigarette for the first time ever. He’d never even had a puff.
His heart rate and blood pressure soared as toxic chemicals entered his blood.
“It’s really burning down my throat. It’s not like in the movies,” Dr Mosley said.
“I don’t feel nauseous, I feel quite buzzy. I get it. I finally get why people smoke. This is an extremely efficient drug delivery system – getting the drug to my brain in just 10 seconds.”
Mosley then smoked e-cigarettes (or vaped, as it’s known) for a month to see if, as a smoking virgin, he would become addicted to nicotine, while investigating just how safe these devices are.
About a billion people worldwide smoke traditional cigarettes and, according to Dr Mosley, about half of them will die from smoking-related health issues. These deaths, he says, are preventable if they quit.
What kills people is inhaling toxins from burning tobacco to get the effect of nicotine. E-cigarettes vaporise the nicotine using a liquid made up of propylene, glycol and flavourings, apparently eliminating toxic side effects.
Chinese scientist Hon Lik invented the e-cigarette when was looking for something to help him give up smoking. Initially, small companies marketed the device – until the big tobacco companies jumped in, presumably to help keep profits from flagging cigarette sales.
Now, around two million Brits vape – but experts remain divided about whether or not they are a saviour or a major health disaster in the making.
Part of the concern stems from the fact the spectacular rise in their use has not been matched by research into their impact on health.
Dr Mosley and his team set up a series of their own experiments with heavy smokers who said they wanted to quit.
They were put into teams who tried e-cigarettes, Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT) such as patches, or going cold turkey, and various health markers were tracked throughout the process.
They also tested the effects of vaping on the bodies of existing vapers.
Overall, they found:
- E-cigarettes and NRT achieved the same results in the volunteers in assisting quitting smoking.
- Dr Mosley didn’t get addicted (though he admitted a sample of one isn’t conclusive), but he did suffer some “subtle” damage to his lungs.
- UK research indicates only 0.02 per cent of the population has taken up vaping instead of smoking as a result of access to e-cigarettes.
- While no one knows the longer-term effects of vaping and more research is required, current expert opinion suggests the impact will be minimal – particularly compared to tobacco smoking.
On balance, the programme concluded that while nobody should use nicotine on any device, e-cigarettes were a boon to those who wanted to give up smoking and, therefore, should be widely available everywhere.