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Watchdog Wednesday: how safe is the vape?

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There are new rules this week to regulate the sale of e-cigarettes. Vape use has rocketed in the UK - there are around 2.8 million regular users, compared to 8.7 million people who still smoke conventional cigarettes.

Here’s what you need to know about what’s changing...

An electronic cigaretteiStock

First off, how is there smoke without fire?

The white clouds billowing about people’s heads might look like smoke but it is vapour, which carries nicotine and usually a flavouring.

The battery heats a coil, the liquid (vapers call it ‘juice’) passes over the coil, which turns it into vapour which is inhaled.

Flavours range from the tobacco-themed to sweet, minty and just plain weird, such as 'vamp toes', 'buttercream dream', 'sweet melons' and the intriguing 'gorilla trigger' (we presume this doesn't taste of hairy ape).

Michael Mosley and colleagues sitting round a tableBBC

What are the new rules? What’s changing?

The rules are tightening up on what you can sell and how it is labelled. The rules cover the strength of juice that shops can sell as well as the sizes of cartridges and tanks - for non-medical use, the limits are no more than 20mg/ml and no more than 2ml. The vapes must also deliver a consistent dose of nicotine. There are also requirements that the packaging should be childproof and show if it’s been tampered with.

Andy Logan from the Vape Emporium says that the new rules, which are part of the Tobacco Products Directive, will mean that vapers are getting a product that is fit for purpose. “The juice, the thing that you are inhaling, is going into your lungs. It’s important to know that it’s been made in a lab that’s sterile and with the correct equipment.”

Andy warns that there is a change-over period, until May 2017, when pre-regulation vape equipment can still be sold. He says that the rules mean that some prices could go up by 20%. This is because people can no longer bulk buy in big bottles, plus the increased cost of labelling and new compliant packaging.

Michael Mosley vapingBBC

Michael Mosley’s month as a vaper (and why salad could be as dangerous as cigarettes)

TV doctor Michael Mosley wanted to find out the effects of vaping for non-smokers, so he became his own guinea pig and smoked his first ever cigarette. Then it was on to a month of vaping.

His show, 'Horizon E-cigarettes: Miracle or Menace?' raises some worrying issues around the safety of the flavours on offer and asks, if we know something is safe to eat, does that mean it’s safe to smoke?

David O’Reilly, Head of Research and Development at British American Tobacco says the danger in smoking is in the actual burning of the tobacco, which is why vaping is thought to be less unhealthy. “If you took lettuce, dried it, rolled it and set fire to it and inhaled it, you would inhale very similar toxicants to those you would get from tobacco.”

And we know lettuce is safe to eat.

However, vaping does cause changes to the airways. When Michael vaped, tests showed an increase in inflammation of the airways directly after vaping (this reflects the results of a published study). Respiratory specialist Dr Omar Usmani, who detected the difference described this as an "insult or injury" that is happening "every time you vape".

The second was an increase in macrophages (defence cells that line the airways). Our experts believe this may well be a new finding - it’s known to happen in smokers but hasn’t been properly studied in people using e-cigarettes. Too many macrophages can be damaging as they produce enzymes that can damage the airways.

Michael Mosley vapingBBC

Why do we need new regulations?

Watchdog has heard of a number of different problems with dodgy e-cigs in the past. Some have said that the quality of the juice couldn’t be relied upon and the vapes weren’t always able to deliver a regular hit of nicotine.

Fires have also started in people’s homes, leading to warnings to always use the right charger. A fire in Camden was started after an e-cigarette was wrongly plugged into a mini USB meant for a mobile phone.

Michael Mosley vapingBBC

On top of this, there had been worries that vaping might look cool to non-smokers and that its advertising could ‘normalise’ smoking again, or make people just skip straight to vaping. But figures from ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) show that since 2013, there has been no increase in regular vaping amongst people who have never smoked, with only 0.2% of people who have never smoked saying they’re vaping.

John Britton is chair of the Royal College of Physicians’ Tobacco Advisory Group. He said that regulation cuts people’s exposure to other e-cigarette ingredients and reduces health risks further.

He said: “The public can be reassured that e-cigarettes are much safer than smoking, however the possibility of some harm from long-term e-cigarette use cannot be dismissed due to inhalation of the ingredients other than nicotine, but is likely to be very small, and substantially smaller than that arising from tobacco smoking.”

This article was first published on Wednesday May 18th, 2016