An image of an e-cigarette

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Public Health England has released its latest report on e-cigarettes, updating on research into their safety and making new recommendations.

The key findings won’t come as a surprise to those who follow the research closely: research shows e-cigarettes are less harmful than tobacco cigarettes, and they can help smokers quit.

But a worrying trend continues to emerge. The report says that public perception of the safety of e-cigarettes has got worse in recent years, despite building evidence that vaping is less harmful than smoking.

Here’s 4 things you need to know following yesterday’s report.

1. The evidence so far shows that vaping is much less harmful than smoking

We’ve blogged about some of the research before. But the report highlights a recent study that tried to calculate the difference in cancer risk for smoking and vaping for the first time. Scientists analysed the chemicals released from tobacco cigarettes and e-cigarettes, and estimated that the lifetime cancer risk for e-cigarette use could be 100 times lower than that of smoking.

But determining risk is a tricky thing to do – it’s hard to get accurate figures without long term studies involving people – and so this should be considered an estimate at best.

2. Public perception of e-cigarettes is worsening

Despite the research telling us that e-cigarettes are far less harmful than smoking, the number of people using them in Great Britain appears to have stalled at just under 3 million. The fact more smokers haven’t switched could in part be down to public perception of their safety.

According to the report, more and more people are incorrectly identifying e-cigarettes as being as harmful as tobacco cigarettes. And in some cases, they’re wrongly badged as more harmful. From 2013 to 2017, nearly four times as many adults thought that e-cigarettes were as harmful, or more harmful, than smoking (7% in 2013 to 26% in 2017).

Yesterday’s report calls for the misperceptions around e-cigarettes to be addressed.

Professor John Newton, Director for Health Improvement at Public Health England, said: “It would be tragic if thousands of smokers who could quit with the help of an e-cigarette are being put off due to false fears about their safety.”

3. E-cigarettes are helping people to stop smoking

The first half of 2017 saw the highest success rates for quitting smoking in England. While we can’t say this is down to e-cigarettes alone, they’re likely to have played a role.

According to the report, e-cigarettes may contribute to thousands of smokers quitting each year. It’s estimated that there were 18,000 more long-term ex-smokers in England in 2015 alone thanks to e-cigarettes.

And stats show that when Stop Smoking Services provide behavioural support for people choosing to use an e-cigarette, the quit rates are comparable to using licensed medications.

The benefits of e-cigarettes as a stop smoking aid were backed up by figures showing, for the first time ever, most vapers have stopped smoking entirely. This is a big change from a few years ago, where most vapers also smoked cigarettes.

A graphic showing that for the first time the majority of vapers have stopped smoking entirely.

Public Health England highlighted the need for more trials to test how effective e-cigarettes are in helping people quit. It will be especially important to find out more about their effectiveness in groups that typically find it harder to quit, such as those with mental health conditions.

4. Very few young people are picking up e-cigarettes without having tried cigarettes

The report also looked at if young people are vaping, and whether it leads to smoking tobacco. This concern has been raised following studies that found people who have tried e-cigarettes are more likely to try smoking tobacco.

But as Professor Linda Bauld, our cancer prevention expert from the University of Stirling and author on the report, explains:

“In the UK, research clearly shows that regular use of e-cigarettes among young people who have never smoked remains negligible, less than 1%.

“We need to keep closely monitoring these trends, but so far the data suggest that e-cigarettes are not acting as a route into regular smoking amongst young people.”

It’s also illegal to buy e-cigarettes in the UK if you’re under 18, and this should restrict the number of young people that are able to pick up an e-cigarette.

Overall, this new report highlights the opportunities that e-cigarettes could present in the battle against tobacco, among the range of already established methods. There are still some outstanding questions that only long-term data can answer. But right now, smokers should take note that if they’ve tried everything else to move away from tobacco, evidence points towards e-cigarettes being a less harmful alternative.

Carl Alexander is a health information officer at Cancer Research UK