A study by part of Britain's Department of Health has found that electronic cigarettes are around 95% less harmful than tobacco. It concluded that e-cigarettes should be promoted as a tool to help people quit smoking.
E-cigarettes contain no tobacco. Instead they deliver a vapor that is laced with nicotine. Users are called vapers. They have become popular in Europe and the United States, but health organizations have been slow to advocate them as a safer alternative to tobacco. Local and national governments have introduced bills to regulate their use, especially to regular their use by teenagers.
The study was published by Public Health England and is a review of the available evidence on e-cigarette use. The study said e-cigarettes, which are already the most popular aids to quitting smoking in Britain and the United States, could be a cheap way to reduce smoking.
"There is no evidence that e-cigarettes are undermining England's falling smoking rates," said Professor Ann McNeil in a statement at the British government's website. McNeil is one of the authors of the study.
"Instead the evidence consistently finds that e-cigarettes are another tool for stopping smoking and in my view smokers should try vaping, and vapers should stop smoking entirely," she added.
Most of the chemicals that cause smoking-related diseases are absent in e-cigarettes, the study said. The current best estimate is that e-cigarette use is around 95% less harmful than smoking. Passive inhalation from an e-cigarette was also much less harmful, the study said.
Almost all of the 2.6 million British adults using e-cigarettes are current or ex-smokers who say they are using the devices to help them quit, according to the study. Only 2% of young people are regular users, the study said.
This publicly-funded study, however, is contrary to a 2014 report by the World Health Organization that called for stiff regulation of e-cigarettes and bans on their indoor use and sale to minors.
"E-cigarettes are not completely risk free but when compared to smoking, evidence shows they carry just a fraction of the harm," said Professor Kevin Fenton of Public Health England.