A growing proportion of American adults consider vapes just as or even more dangerous than cigarettes, according to a study out today. The findings illustrate just how hard it is to accurately convey the risks of e-cigarettes, especially when public health researchers are still working out what some of those risks actually are.
Part of the challenge is that the risk-benefit calculation for e-cigarettes depends on who’s using them. For adult smokers, completely switching to e-cigarettes may actually be less dangerous than smoking combustible cigarettes. But that doesn’t mean they’re completely safe: vapes haven’t been around long enough for us to know what their long-term harms might be, and at the moment, there’s little regulatory oversight of their ingredients, or their batteries — which sometimes, but rarely, explode. As for non-smoking adults and minors under the age of 18, they certainly shouldn’t be vaping because of the potential risks for heart and lung problems, as well as nicotine addiction that might eventually lead to cigarette smoking.
It’s a complicated public health message to digest — and today’s study, published in the journal JAMA Network Open, suggests that some of it is getting lost in translation. It’s understandable that the public doesn’t know what to think, because the science is still evolving, according to Gideon St. Helen, a tobacco researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, who was not involved in the study. “It’s not like the tobacco control community is united in terms of their opinion of electronic cigarettes,” he says. “Some people believe electronic cigarettes are bad, and some people believe they’re like the second coming of Christ.”
Jidong Huang, an associate professor of health management and policy at Georgia State University, wanted to know what that means for the public’s perception of vapes. “We don’t know what Americans now think about e-cigarettes,” he says. “Do they believe e-cigarettes are safe, or do they believe that e-cigarettes are more harmful?” So for this study, he and a team of researchers analyzed the results from two different surveys: one was an online survey conducted by Georgia State University, and the other was conducted by the National Cancer Institute. Starting in 2012, both surveys asked thousands of adults how risky they thought e-cigarettes were compared to regular cigarettes.
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