"A couple of decades ago, crudely, it was a case of quit smoking or die. There were very few options for smokers wanting to quit because there just weren’t any real treatments or helping measures around," says Amanda Sandford from Anti-smoking charity ASH.
To say that has changed would be an understatement. Last week marked the beginning of ‘Stoptober’ a national NHS campaign aimed at helping Britain’s 10 million smokers quit. One of the more popular methods aiding quitting is the electronic cigarette - or e-cigarette - which has seen a huge take-up among the smoking community.
ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) reckons a third of the 2.1 million adults using e-cigarettes are former smokers. Spokesperson Amanda Sandford says: “With the arrival of NRT - nicotine replacement theory - a lot has changed, especially with the advent of the e-cigs.
“There has been an explosion of their use among smokers who are using them to cut down in order to quit entirely.”
As one of the UK’s 10 million smokers, I visited e-cigarette shop V-Revolution in west London to see if I could be persuaded to forgo my daily cigarettes. Having smoked for five years, I’m on anything from a couple a day to a packet during a night out. Health concerns aside, smoking is becoming an increasingly expensive habit I’d love to cut back on.
Store manager Elizabeth Playle recommended a second generation e-cigarette as I’m a semi-heavy regular smoker. A rechargeable opaque black tube conceals a battery powering the electronic heating elements, an atomiser, contained in a clear, refillable cartridge. As you puff, ‘e-liquid’ in the atomiser is drawn onto the heating elements by fibre wicks and disappears in a cloud of vapour - some of which you inhale.
If you can get over the fact you initially feel like a space-age opium addict, the overall effect can be satisfyingly akin to smoking. Prices for a starter kit (including charging devices) go from £25 to £73, with the top-of-the-range e-cigarette offering a variable level of nicotine.
E-liquid flavours tend to ape ‘traditional’ cigarette tastes - Playle guided me through what she might offer someone switching from Malbroro Reds compared to a Camels smoker, with accordingly different nicotine levels. There are also more novelty ones on offer - Pinacolada-flavour anyone? The cartridges cost £7.99 and are supposed to last the equivalent of roughly 200 cigarettes.
Playle, who has managed the busy store since it opened in 2013, says she has seen a huge take-off in business in the last eight months, claiming they sell an average of 50 starter kits daily. “Now, there are so many people starting on the kits so it’s become a lot more socially acceptable.”
Her experiences were echoed by other brands. Emma Logan, a spokesperson for JAC Vapour, which commissioned a survey in 2013 showing 75 per cent of its customers had given up smoking, said: “Before it was mostly people who understood tech and were interested in that kind of product or idea.
“There has been a shift because if you are a smoker now there is a sense of being socially ostracised - there’s no way you don’t know the dangers and that what you are doing is essentially killing yourself.”
A study of over nearly 6,000 smokers conducted by UCL, principally funded by Cancer Research UK, claims people attempting to quit without professional help are 60 per cent more like likely to succeed using e-cigarettes.
“E-cigarettes could substantially improve public health because of their widespread appeal and the huge health gains associated with stopping smoking,” says Professor Robert West of UCL’s Department of Epidemiology & Public Health, senior author of the study.
E-cigarette in tow, I was suddenly aware of how many people I saw daily puffing away at the things - in pubs, at bus stops, and even at work according to one friend who vapes during the day and smokes when she’s on a night out. The practise has been glamorised by Hollywood and stars such as Leo DiCaprio or Lily Allen. New film Cymbeline sees actress Milla Jovanich prominently vaping throughout.
As e-cigarettes have spread, so too has legislation. Although the government ruled e-cigarettes supplying less than 20 mg/ml of nicotine are consumer products so fall outside health regulations, Welsh Health Minister Mark Drakeford has called for e-cigarettes to be banned in public.
"E-cigarettes contain nicotine, which is highly addictive, and I want to minimise the risk of a new generation becoming addicted to this drug,” he has said.
Moves to ban them in public have been greeted with dismay by supporters. Playle claims: “There is still a lot of ignorance towards e-cigarettes. A lot of people see vapour and just associated it with smoke, you naturally think it’s a health problem.”
ASH spokesperson Sandford agrees. Although the anti-smoking charity are not claiming “they are 100 per cent safe”, she feels banning them in public could be disastrous for those attempting to quit: “what will happen is they will go back to smoking.”
There are few scientific indications of what the long term health risks of vaping could be. However, elements – such as the sugar used to flavour the e-liquid – may have unintended side effects. Playle says she will always refer a diabetic potential customer to a doctor before selling them a product. The levels of sugar are low, but she still wants to be safe.
After a few days vaping, I found the vapour uncomfortably harsh in my mouth. The amount of nicotine I consumed – inside and absentmindedly – made me feel ill in the same way smoking too many on an evening out might.
In August the World Health Organisation released a report calling for e-cigarettes to be banned indoors, noting their use among adolescents was rapidly increasing, and citing their concern about the role of the tobacco industry in a market worth an estimated $3 billion globally.
The British Medical Association also remains sceptical, claiming tighter controls are needed and added: “any health claims must be substantiated by robust independent scientific evidence”.
Dr Ram Moorthy, Deputy Chair of the BMA’s Board of Science, commented: “further research is needed to learn more about the long-term effects of e-cigarettes and uncover whether they are an effective and safe way of reducing tobacco harm.”
Will Hill, a spokesperson for British American Tobacco, said they were "committed to making this concept a reality for many years.” Having been the first international tobacco company to launch an e-cigarette in the UK market, BAT already have an investment in the burgeoning practise.
The idea was first patented by American Korean veteran Herbert A. Gilbert in 1965. Even the modern-sounding phrasing around electronic cigarettes - ‘vaping’ for example - was propagated in the 1970s. Then in 2003 the Chinese businessman Hon Lik re-patented the electronic cigarette. Imperial Tobacco acquired the intellectual property owned by Lik in 2013 for $75 million.
Having used my new e-cigarette for a week the slow realisation I was absorbing more nicotine than I would usually has undoubtedly put me off them. There’s no end to an e-cigarette so you have to keep an eye on how long you’ve been vaping. The flavours - although undoubtedly improving - still leave a lot to be desired, tasting oddly sweet and cloying.
Personally, I think if you want to quit there’s probably only one way to go about it: cold-turkey. After a week of vaping I was desperate for a ‘proper’ cigarette. But when I finally had one it was distinctly underwhelming. My smoke-friendly palate, destroyed by a week vaping, couldn’t handle actual smoke.
Although I have now bounced back to smoking, I’m buying noticeably less. I didn’t enjoy vaping as a smoking alternative, but as a quitting device I think it’s hard to walk away from.