VCU tobacco expert, five others debunk claim that e-cigs are ‘95% safer’

Illustration by Karly Andersen

Eduardo Acevedo, Contributing Writer

A member of the VCU Center for the Study of Tobacco products, along with five other nicotine experts, are working to disprove the claim that e-cigarettes are “95% safer” than cigarettes in a recent editorial published in the American Journal of Public Health.

The claim that e-cigs were 95% less harmful arose in the 2015 Public Health England Report. A group of 12 experts in human health sciences ranked 12 products containing nicotine against 14 criteria that addressed harm to self and others. They concluded e-cigarettes are 95% safer to use than combustible cigarettes.

Without any hard evidence to back their claim, the experts determined that e-cigarettes pose 5% of the risk cigarettes do. An article was published subsequently in the American Journal of Public Health reporting that e-cigs are “95% safer” than combustible cigarettes.

Thomas Eissenberg, co-director of the Center for the Study of Tobacco Products at VCU, said the “95% safer” statement is a factoid, or speculation reported and repeated so often that it is widely regarded as fact.

“My mind was blown when I read it in 2015 because of their own admission that there wasn’t a lot of evidence on which to base these estimates,” Eissenberg said. “I mean, I’m a scientist, right? If I don’t have evidence, then I don’t make statements.”

Eissenberg and the other experts on cigarettes and public health published the editorial earlier this month.

Co-writers of the “Invalidity of an Oft-Cited Estimate of the Relative Harms of Electronic Cigarettes”:

  • Aruni Bhatnagar, American Heart Association Tobacco Regulation Center, University of Louisville
  • Simon Chapman, School of Public Health, University of Sydney, Australia
  • Sven Eric Jordt, Department of Anesthesiology, Duke University School of Medicine
  • Alan Shihadeh, Maroun Semaan Faculty of Engineering and Architecture, American University of Beirut in Lebanon
  • Eric K. Soule, Department of Health Education and Promotion, East Carolina University

According to a section of the editorial titled, “Today’s Electronic Cigarettes Are Different,” the 2013 estimate could have been valid six years ago, but is outdated now.

“People say it’s much, much safer … but we really need to look to the future to see what the true disease of these products are,” said Simon Chapman, emeritus professor of public Health at the University of Sydney.

Thomas Eissenberg, co-director of the Center for the Study of Tobacco Products at VCU, said e-cigarettes have advanced in technology and changed in ingredients since first assessments of the products. Photo by Tzeggai Isaac

Advancements in e-cigarette technology since 2013 have made the products more powerful with unknown consequences.

“Compared to e-cigarette products available in 2013, e-cigarettes today can operate at higher power levels and many use liquids with higher nicotine concentrations including the recent introduction of protonated nicotine, or ‘nicotine salts,’” said Eric Soule, one of the co-authors of the editorial.

“The devices have changed such that they’re clearly more dangerous than they were back in 2013,” Eissenberg said. “The liquids have changed, and they have ingredients that were never even considered back in 2013.”

If the “95% less risky” or “95% less harmful” statements sounds familiar, it’s because they’re some of the vaping and e-cigarette industry’s taglines to get smokers to quit cigarettes and switch to their alternative devices.

“They won’t stop using it until they’re forced to stop using it,” Eissenberg said. “That’s been the history of the tobacco industry all along. They didn’t put health warnings on packs of cigarettes ‘til they were forced to put health warnings on packs of cigarettes.”

1 Comment

  1. Shame that you didn’t bother to read the various critical comments of this non-peer reviewed opinion piece masquerading as science. PHE updates its assessments regularly, and most actual evidence from peer reviewed studies are not in comparison with the same issues in smoking. Vaping isn’t safe, just orders of magnitude safer than smoking.

    Journalism – Try it

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