Even In Pro-Vaping UK, Disinformation Abounds

Carl V. Phillips | Contributor

There is no place more vape-friendly than the UK, with it high usage prevalence and relatively few harmful laws. But according to a recent survey commissioned by British American Tobacco, many British are still ignorant about e-cigarettes.

BAT, the maker of Vype e-cigarettes, reported in a recent press release that only 52 percent of ever-smokers in the UK believed vaping to be less harmful than smoking. Further data obtained from the researchers that conducted the survey show even worse news. Of the approximately 5,000 smokers surveyed, only 21 percent correctly answered that vaping is significantly less harmful with the other 31 percent merely saying it is slightly less harmful. Others thought vaping was more harmful (11 percent), about the same (28 percent) or did not express a belief (9 percent).

The 52 percent who realize that vaping is less harmful is about the same as among nonsmokers. Former smokers were more likely (62 percent) to know this.

There are several possible explanations for these different results. Smokers who are not inclined to quit tend to reject the cognitive dissonance that results from believing that an alternative is safer. This tendency is aided by the widespread disinformation about the risks from vaping, as well as anchoring bias (i.e., people mistakenly think the risk from smoking is a good first estimate for the risk from vaping, and then fail to adjust away from that sufficiently). The BAT survey did not seek to asses subjects’ sources of belief.

Of course, disinformation and anchoring can just create genuine ignorance, apart from cognitive dissonance. The vast majority who did not know that vaping is far less harmful than smoking suggests the disinformation is working even in a country where governmental and semi-governmental tobacco controllers have basically adopted vaping as smoking cessation method. 

The researchers confirmed only 24 percent general public “feel that they know enough about vaping to recommend it.” However, it is unsurprising, and frankly reassuring, that most random people felt like they were not qualified to offer advice on this topic. Given the widespread ignorance, it is probably best that most people refrain from commenting. Moreover, it is not clear it is possible to interpret this statistic at all, because there was no answer for people who felt that they knew enough to recommend against vaping.

Among ever-smokers, about a third identified vaping as particularly effective for stopping or reducing smoking, with slightly higher numbers in the larger cites. However, this was similar to the portion identifying NRT products as particularly effect. About a third said that none of the cessation aids are particularly effect. 

This has several possible interpretations. Unfortunately BAT and the researchers did not make enough data available to sort them out. Despite the strong affinity some people have for vaping, it is quite plausible that it holds little or no appeal for two thirds of smokers. On the other hand, it could be that many of those who did not affirm the effectiveness of vaping had never even tried it.

BAT’s press release presented the results in the context of the UK government’s annual “Stoptober” anti-smoking campaign endorsing switching to vaping for the first time, and the timing was clearly intended to try to amplify that message. It would be interesting to see if the responses to the same questions change immediately following that campaign. Former smokers who already embrace vaping celebrate such efforts, but almost nothing is known about the impact of such government messaging on the target audience of current smokers who are skeptical about the option. 

It has been clear from the dawn of vaping that it causes some smokers to quit who would not have otherwise done so. What remains unclear is what, if any, affirmative efforts – marketing, education, or campaigns – will cause many other smokers to join that group. Almost no research has been designed to inform that question.

Correction: This article has been updated to more clearly reflect the percentage of people the survey found feels they know enough about vaping to recommend it. 

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