Smokers looking to switch to e-cigarettes are facing conflicing health advice

These are confusing days to be a smoker. As the new year approaches, many nicotine addicts will be preparing a resolution to quit the fags – and, in light of escalating tobacco prices and graphic on-pack imagery, a large number are no doubt considering vaping.

They face a dizzyingly large variety of e-devices from which to choose. Electronic cigarettes are big business – and they became big news, too, when Philip Morris boss André Calantzopoulos held up his company’s new smokeless system, Iqos, and pledged to do “everything we can” to get smokers to pack in the conventional smokes. Because e-cigs are good. E-cigs are no threat to health. Are they?

Today, US surgeon-general Vivek H. Murthy said vaping among young people was now “a major public health concern”. Use of e-cigs tripled among middle school and high school students from 2013 to 2014, US health officials found last year.

“We know enough right now to say that youth and young adults should not be using e-cigarettes,” said Murthy. “The key bottom line here is that the science tells us the use of nicotine-containing products by youth, including e-cigarettes, is unsafe.”

Fair enough. Time to bin the atomiser, kids. But wait… because here in Blighty, health officials say it’s fine to suck down nicotine-infused water vapour. In fact, it’s 95% safer than sparking up a tab, according to a 2015 evidence review by Public Health England. “The current best estimate by experts is that e-cigarette use represents only a fraction of the risk of smoking,” it read.

Even the anti-smoking campaigners at ASH are down with vaping, saying they’re “puzzled” by the depth of the surgeon-general’s worries. “In the US, as in the UK, young people are experimenting with e-cigarettes, but vaping has not been associated with an increase in smoking,” the organisation says, adding there was no evidence of significant regular use by non-smoking British children.

In the end, then, the decision about the health effects of vaping will have to be down to the individual smoker – at least until medical science gets a better grip of the pros and cons of e-devices. That’s hardly a desirable state of affairs for consumers and highlights just how urgently we need more reliable, consistent guidance on e-cigarettes and their health implications.

Of course, whatever science finds, the best route to being a non-smoker will remain the same: don’t start in the first place.

Happy new year’s resolution!