A new publication by Public Health England has been attracting controversy after it claimed that smoking e-cigarettes was 95% safer than using tobacco. However, the claim was based on research which was funded by the e-cigarette industry — a conflict of interest which, according to some experts, raises serious questions about the report’s conclusion.
The “95% safer” figure was the basis of a call by Public Health England for doctors in the NHS to start prescribing the electronic nicotine sticks. It came in a larger, 111-page review of medical evidence which has been called ‘game changing.’
If the research is correct it would be welcome news to users of ‘vaping’ products like e-cigarettes who are often looking for the best e cig that would be a less harmful alternative to traditional smoking.
Still, researchers publishing in the highly respected medical journal The Lancet have pointed out that the ’95 per cent safer’ claim comes from a 2014 study — which was conducted by scientists in the pay of e-cigarette manufacturers. They claim that this conflict of interest casts doubt on the report’s conclusion.
Public Health England was set up back in 2013 as part of sweeping health reforms by the last government, and it’s responsible for ‘reducing health inequality’ and ‘protecting the health of the nation.’
In a press conference last week where the report was launched, PHE Director of Health and Well-Being stated it was vital the public be told e-cigarettes are safe. An accompanying press release noted that a current ‘best estimate’ was that e-cigarettes were about 95% ‘less harmful’ than ordinary smoking.
Journalists who asked for the source of the findings were shown a chart which gave cigarettes a ‘harm score’ of 99.6 per cent, compared with a ‘harm score’ of just 4 per cent for e-cigarettes.
The Lancet has now revealed that both the chart and this claim came from a study which was published last year in the European Addiction Research journal last year.
Three of the study’s 11 authors had disclosed in the original paper that they had roles advising the e-cigarette industry. The journal’s editors went further, printing a ‘potential conflict of interest’ warning next to the paper.
However, this declaration of interests was not mentioned anywhere in the PHE’s 111-page-long review.
Even the original researchers who had been funded by the e-cigarette industry expressed caution about the results of their research, noting a ‘lack of hard evidence’ — another caution which the PHE report did not include.
E-cigarettes work by delivering a nicotine hit after heating a so-called e-liquid until it is vaporised. This avoids the tar and other carcinogens usually associated with breathing smoke.
About 2.6 million British adults have used an e-cigarette since they’ve come on the market. Scientists mostly agree they’re safer than tobacco, but there are still concerns about their long-term safety.
The World Health organisation called for an indoor ban on e-cigarettes due to fears they might harm non-users.
The PHE report was welcomed by the approximately £340 million e-cigarette industry, and most medical bodies and public health experts also welcomed the report.
However, Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies stated that people still needed to recognise e-cigarettes are not wholly risk-free, and they should only be used for helping smokers quit.