How Many People Vape in the UK?
What do the stats say about the scale of vaping, especially among younger people? Some are worried that younger people, including those who would otherwise not smoke, are being seduced by vaping, judging it to be less risky than smoking. So are they? Well, possibly: vaping rates in under 18s have nearly doubled in the last few years. Speaking with Chris Smith, Linda Bauld is a public health specialist at the University of Edinburgh where she’s been involved in a range of studies and consultations on the recent uptick in the uptake of vaping…
Linda - In the UK, which has actually some of the highest levels of use in the world, we now have about 7% of adults - that's 3.6 million people - who are currently vaping; but that is still fewer than, for example, the number of smokers we have in the UK, which is still about 14% of the population, 6.9 million.
Chris - And are those smoking figures overlapping with the vaping figures? So if someone says they're a smoker, are they saying they're a smoker if they're a vaper, or have we got six, 7% vapers and 13, 14, 15% smokers?
Linda - Thirty per cent of people who are vaping are also smoking: the vast majority of people who vape are actually ex-smokers - there's 2.4 million of those. So 65% of vapers are ex-smokers, and a tiny proportion about 1% who are vaping have never smoked.
Chris - What is the age breakdown? Who's doing what, by what age?
Linda - If you look at 18 year olds, about 40% of 18 year olds have tried vaping. So it's quite common to have tried it. But if you look at young people overall, so let me just start with a proportion who have tried vaping at all. And that has gone up over time. So it's not as big as adults, but about 15.8% of 11 to 17 year olds have tried vaping. In terms of current vaping, as in they're doing it at the moment, it's about 7% of 11 to 17 year olds. And that's actually gone up recently - and that's a 2022 figure - from 4% in 2020. So we've seen quite a big jump in youth vaping in the last year in the UK.
Chris - Do we know what's driving that? And do we know what that is translating into? Is this translating into entrenched vapers? Is it translating into smokers? Do we know?
Linda - Let's start with why we think we've seen a recent rise is to do the changes in the market and the availability of particular products, particularly disposable vapes. In the UK, although also in the US, these are quite common now. Disposables accounted for 7% of the market for young people in 2020. And it's now 52% in 2022. Is it translating into long term vapers or long term smokers? We don't actually know that yet, but most young people who vape are just doing it occasionally or they've tried. So the level of regular use, as in at least weekly, is very low. Less than 5% of young people who are vaping are, are vaping regularly. And 92% of under eighteens who've never smoked have also never vaped. So it's common, but it's not becoming a majority activity. So the question is, is vaping creating a generation of new smokers? Well, at the population level, we're continuing to see youth smoking rates decline at a very encouraging rate in many countries. So what we see in these studies where there's a relationship between smoking and vaping is more that they're the same kinds of young people who are trying these risky behaviours.
Chris - Some people, when we talk about the health effects of vaping tend to react with hostility because they regard vaping as a much safer alternative to smoking. But I suppose there are two aspects to that, aren't there? It may well be safer for people who used to smoke, but it may not be safer if someone takes up vaping who would never have smoked. So what does the data suggest? Is this just supposition that it's safer? Do we have concrete evidence that vaping is good compared to smoking?
Linda - It's pretty difficult to find something as harmful to the human body as cigarettes and combustible tobacco. Really very, very difficult. So if we start out with a relative risk question, and I'll just give you two brief examples of studies, one in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2017 and the second one in the Journal of American College of Cardiology, and the first study took smokers who completely switched to vaping and had done that for a while, or those who were both smoking and vaping. And they compared their nicotine exposure, which is similar; they compared their toxicant exposure; and also some carcinogens. And they found that people who switched completely to vaping dramatically reduced their levels of exposure to toxins and carcinogens. But those who were dual users as in they were smoking and vaping, the reduction was very small. Secondly, in the cardiology study, which was looking at switching completely for a month, for people who were regular smokers to vaping, they found that their vascular function in that short time period really improved. So I think relative risk, we can be relatively confident because smoking is so harmful that if people switch complete to vaping, they're going to be better off and they'll benefit their health. But, the products are prevalent now. We simply don't have enough evidence from human studies - for several years, for example - amongst people who've never smoked and who vape. So there we rely on studies in cells and studies in animals ,where some of the findings are actually quite alarming. But we just can't be confident that we should say to people, "it's going to be as harmful as smoking in the future," because we simply don't know that yet.