Growing evidence of harms highlight the need for science, not bogus health claims, to inform Australia’s policy on e-cigarettes

18 September 2020

Cancer Council, the National Heart Foundation of Australia and the Australian Council on Smoking and Health have urged Australians to ignore unsubstantiated claims about the benefits of e-cigarettes as mounting evidence points to their potential harms.

Professor Sanchia Aranda, CEO of Cancer Council Australia explained, “Gathering the strong, reliable evidence about the potential benefits and harms of a product to inform policy takes time. As the evidence about e-cigarettes mounts so too does the slew of highly concerning potential effects. These include acute lung disease, increased markers of cardiovascular disease and carcinogenesis, toxicological risks and nicotine addiction through increasing use in young people.

Professor Aranda explained that much of the misinformation surrounding e-cigarettes came from unsubstantiated claims by organisations and individuals with vested interests.

“E-cigarette lobbyists often find alternative studies with results that suit their commercial interests. We also hear anecdotes and unfounded claims, positioned as evidence. Independent evidence reviews are crucial to informing public health policy on e-cigarettes.

“In more than 30 years’ working in health research, healthcare and policy, never before have I seen so much media interest based on unfounded health claims

“Where there is a lucrative commercial opportunity, lobbyists will often try to drown out science with noise. Fortunately, in Australia we have rigorous scientific processes protected from interference and opinion.”

Maurice Swanson, CEO of the Australian Council on Smoking and Health said “One of the worst examples of an unfounded claim was the “factoid” that e-cigarettes were 95% less harmful than tobacco cigarettes. The claim has been repeated so many times that people think it’s evidence.

“To estimate with a percentage, the potential harms of external substances on human health without decades of research studying the effects is not possible. Adding to this is the uncertainty about what chemicals are in e-cigarette products. Putting a percentage figure on the relative harms of unknown substances is entirely unscientific.”

Respiratory Physician and adviser on tobacco control to Cancer Council, the Heart Foundation and ACOSH, Professor Matthew Peters, said health policy should not be driven by anecdotes.

“Claims have to be reviewed systematically. For example, we constantly hear that the UK is an e-cigarettes success story yet data from the long-running Smoking in England Study show a higher smoking cessation success rate when the use of e-cigarettes during quit attempts declined.

“At the same time, promotion of e-cigarette use and dismissal of the risks has led to a 20% use of e-cigarettes in 16 to 24-year-olds and coincided with year-on-year increases in smoking from 8.7% to 14.4% in 16-17 year-olds and from 16.7% to 21.9% in 18-21-year-olds. Years of hard-fought reductions in youth smoking in the UK have been wiped out. Parents are coming forward to voice their concern so we must not let that happen in Australia.”

As an ex-smoker herself, Sydney mum Jacqueline Woods was concerned when she found an e-cigarette in her 15-year-old daughter’s pencil case. The e-cigarette device looked almost identical to a highlighter pen, making it easy for her to disguise.

Jacqueline’s daughter has been exposed to e-cigarettes, or ‘vapes’ heavily through social media, and it is now a growing trend for her friends and at school. She estimates 75% of her daughter’s friends now vape regularly.

Jacqueline said, “The problem with these vapes is they have no odour or taste. You can’t smell it when they’re smoking in the house and you can’t smell it on your child. They could be doing it right under your nose. In the old days, when kids would choke down a cigarette behind the bus stop, at least parents could smell it on them. Now it’s much more subtle and insidious.”

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Notes to editors

The Australian National University and the National Health and Medical Research Council are currently reviewing the evidence within comprehensive, systematic frameworks. The ANU is expected to report its comprehensive review of the evidence in 2021. The NHMRC’s review is ongoing.

Recent research has shown the following potential harmful effects of e-cigarettes

  • E-cigarette use among school children in countries that have made them widely available and allowed them to be promoted is at alarmingly high levels;1
  • E-cigarette use has been shown to lead to nicotine addiction and smoking in young people; 2
  • Use has been linked to direct health harms, including severe and sometimes fatal acute lung disease;3
  • There is an increase in markers of cardiovascular disease, carcinogenesis and other toxicological risks among e-cigarette users ;4 and
  • the most common pattern of e-cigarette use dual usage of both e-cigarettes and cigarettes in people who might have quit using standard strategies.5