Sunday, 4 September 2016

A touch of the vapours thinking about Becks risk society

It had to happen sooner or later. A researcher somewhere claiming their research shows that smoking e-cigarettes (vaping) is bad for your health. In the UK last year, Public Health England firmly endorsed vaping, claiming that it was 95% safer than smoking tobacco. They said that GPs would be able to prescribe e-cigarettes to people trying to give up smoking. However as I write this blog, the Smoke Free NHS web site still says, to date there are no 'medically licenced' e-cigarette products available. Interestingly, in a GP Online poll conducted in July this year, over 70% of GPs said that e-cigarettes should not be prescribed to smokers wanting to quit – and most doctors have concerns about the unknown long term safety of vaping.

The research, by Professor Charalambos Vlachopulos, (University of Athens Medical School) was presented last week at the European Society for Cardiology conference, held in Rome. The study was small scale (involving only 24 participants) but even so, the results demonstrated that vaping had a detrimental impact on the aorta, the main artery which carries and distributes oxygen rich blood cells to the rest of the our arteries. The research showed that vaping makes the aorta stiff and reduces its ability to function. It has the same damaging effect on the aorta as smoking a tobacco based cigarette.

But in fairness, whilst arterial stiffing is the best indicator of possible cardiac problems, and therefore attention should be paid to it, Professor Vlachopulos also acknowledged that other things can have the same effect, coffee, nicotine patches, some foods, sex and so on, although these effects tend to be transitory and short-lived.

And that‘s the rub. Such arguments have often been used by those who smoke as justification for not giving up. Of the top 7 reasons people give; the damage is done; I'll gain weight; I'll get stressed; it's not the right time to quit smoking; it will ruin my social life; smoking looks good; I can't quit because I'm addicted – only the last can be underpinned by research evidence, based on work undertaken around the physiological and psychological aspects of addiction. The rest are fluff, self-serving justifications for not taking any action. If that sounds harsh, research commissioned by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) shows that the total cost to society in England of smoking is £13.9 billion a year (see here). To put that in context, remember that flawed BREXIT bus advert showing the figure of £350 million a week going to the EU – well at just gone 05.00 this morning, and after celebrating a friends 60th birthday last night, I work that out to be some £1.82 billion a year. I am puzzled as to why the BREXIT figure stirred up so much public debate yet the ASH figure raises barely a murmur.  

We don’t yet know the costs to society of e-cigarettes. We do know that there are some 2.2 million people a year in the UK who regularly use e-cigarettes. We also know that the 3 main ingredients in e-cigarettes are Nicotine, Propylene Glycol and Vegetable Glycerin. Vegetable Glycerin obviously comes from vegetables and as such, is thought to be safe, but our lungs are not naturally made to deal with such quantities of this chemical entering our airways. It leaves a thick filmy substance when it’s left to settle onto a surface – not convinced? well get someone who uses e-cigarettes to blow some of the vapour onto a clean smooth surface a few times and then run a clean finger through where the vapour has settled. Most e-cigarettes, and the vaping liquids originate from Chinese manufactures – who of course don’t always conform to the exacting safety standards seen in Europe. 

Some US studies have reported that young people who smoke e-cigarettes will be 6 times more likely to go on to smoke tobacco based cigarettes. Of course such findings might simply reflect that some young people are more or less risk adverse than others, and those that have 'experimented' with e-cigarettes would have experimented with tobacco in any event. The late and great German sociologist, Ulrich Beck noted that whilst mankind had always been exposed to a level of risk such as natural disasters, increasingly modern society exposes us all to what he described as 'manufactured risks'. This is characterised by the way we are involved in both creating and mitigating the risk. So whilst this new research on the possible dangers of e-cigarettes requires further studies to confirm or disprove the claims, it’s a good example of the Beck's risk society concept. It gives rise to the question of why so many people are so ready to expose themselves to such an unknown risk in order to avoid the well-known risks of tobacco cigarette smoking? Just stop is what I say, and for those of you trying to do just that, keep going, the rewards will be worth it!