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E-cigarettes may be helping disadvantaged smokers to quit

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A new study into e-cigarette smoking, led by the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow and published today in BMC Public Health, found that while disadvantaged adult smokers were less likely to have quit smoking, this inequality was smaller among those who vaped, suggesting vaping may be helping this group of smokers to quit.

The findings highlight that vaping has the potential to either widen or narrow socioeconomic inequalities in health in the future.

The study, co-authored by Michaela Benzeval, Professor of Longitudinal Research at the University of Essex, analysed data from almost 40,000 young people and adults in 2015-2017 from Understanding Society, the UK Household Longitudinal Study, led by a team of scientific experts at ISER.

The researchers found that among 10 to 15-year-olds who had never smoked, those from disadvantaged households had a higher risk of vaping. However, vaping was rare in this age group in general, with only around 3% of young people using these devices. Among over 18,000 adults (aged 16+) who had ever smoked, those in disadvantaged households were less likely to be ex-smokers, but this difference was smaller among adults who vaped.

The use of e-cigarettes began to rise in the UK from 2011, with approximately 7% of adults using them in this study. While health consequences of long-term vaping are largely unknown, expert opinion regards vaping as substantially less harmful than smoking, and vaping may help smokers to quit.

Dr Michael Green, lead author of the study said, “Whether someone smokes is important because, while vaping among those who have never smoked might be a concern, vaping among smokers and ex-smokers is more desirable because it can involve people switching away from smoking.

“Inequalities in vaping among young people who have never smoked are something to keep monitoring, but there are good reasons not to be alarmed. Vaping among young people in the UK was still very rare, so any impact would be limited. Furthermore, some of the children using e-cigarettes could be trying them instead of traditional cigarettes, which would likely be much more harmful.”

The study found no evidence of inequalities in vaping among adults who had never smoked or were currently smoking. More advantaged adult smokers were more likely to have quit smoking, but this inequality was smaller among those who vaped.

Dr Green said, “Our findings suggest that e-cigarettes may be helping disadvantaged smokers to quit. This could potentially have a big impact on inequalities in health, because giving up smoking is very beneficial for people’s health.”

The study, Socioeconomic Patterning of Vaping by Smoking Status Among UK Adults and Youth is published in BMC Public Health. The work was funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Scottish Government Chief Scientist Office and the Economic and Social Research Council.

The full paper can be found here.