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Public health

Scares over vaping illness could put lives at risk, PHE warns

Public Health England is concerned that people who use e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation tool may be put off by news from the United States, potentially increasing the risk of relapse.

e cigarette vape nicotine


The director of health improvement at Public Health England has called for “clear and consistent communication from public authorities about the relative risks of smoking and vaping”

Lives could be put at risk by health scares around vaping-related illness, John Newton, the director of health improvement at Public Health England (PHE), has warned.

On 26 September 2019, Newton wrote to Norman Lamb, the chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, on the UK’s position on e-cigarettes following deaths associated with vaping in the United States.

He said advice on using e-cigarettes to help quit smoking should be emphasised because of the danger that people might stop using them out of fear following news from the United States.

“We are concerned that the public seem to increasingly think that using a proprietary e-cigarette could be dangerous, which might stop smokers using them to stop smoking,” he said.

“This reinforces the need to have clear and consistent communication from public authorities about the relative risks of smoking and vaping. It is no exaggeration to say that inflating fears about e-cigarettes could cost lives.”

At least 200 e-cigarette users across the United States presented to hospital in summer 2019 with symptoms including cough, shortness of breath and fatigue. The first death related to an outbreak of severe respiratory illness in e-cigarette users was reported by the Illinois Department of Public Health in August 2019.

Newton said the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had “recently been clearer about the illicit products implicated in this outbreak” and most, if not all of these, were related to illicit vaping products, including cannabis derivatives.

He said it was important to distinguish between the US outbreak, which had mainly affected young male users of cannabinoid inhalers, and the products used by around nine million Americans and three million people in the UK, “where we have yet to see any comparable effects”.

PHE has updated its advice to the public and sent information about nicotine-inhaling products to local public health teams, stop-smoking services and substance-misuse services to direct people to report adverse effects to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency’s Yellow Card scheme.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2019.20207225

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