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Vaping advocates leading policy makers astray with ‘95% safer’ factoid

29 August 2022

Vaping groups and harm reduction advocates have stepped-up their pressure on governments to legalise e-cigarettes and other so called safer tobacco products. In their press statements, webinars, social media posts and letters to governments, they claim among the rationale to embrace these products is because they are 95% safer than cigarettes.

Recently, a small group of harm reduction advocates sent a letter to the Malaysian Prime Minister stating the 95 safer claim and even health benefits when smokers switch to vaping:

“Vaping poses only a small fraction of the risks of smoking and switching completely from smoking to vaping conveys substantial health benefits over continued smoking. Based on current knowledge, stating that vaping is at least 95% less harmful than smoking remains a good way to communicate the large difference in relative risk unambiguously so that more smokers are encouraged to make the switch from smoking to vaping.”

A similar letter was also sent to the Bangladesh Ministry of Health in July.

Emeritus Professor Simon Chapman writes, the 95% safer than cigarettes factoid began in 2013 with Prof David Nutt when he convened 12 people who rated 12 nicotine containing products for harm and judged vaping as having 5% the harm of cigarettes after acknowledging “A limitation of this study is the lack of hard evidence for the harms of most products on most of the criteria.”

Vaping advocates also cite the Public Health England (PHE) and the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) for the 95% safer claim. According to Chapman, he searched for evidence of the 95% safer claim in both PHE and RCP reports and nowhere is there any worked calculations of the 95% safer factoid, and they lead back to Nutt’s paper.

Researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University have also rejected the 95% safer claim. The Guardian reported, between May 2016 and January 2021, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency in the U.K. received 231 reports of 618 adverse reactions believed to be associated with vaping product. Since May 2016 there have been 3 deaths in the UK linked with vaping products.

Several harm reduction advocates who peddle the 95% safer claim don’t declare their links to the tobacco industry. Five of the authors of the letter to the Malaysian Prime Minister are from the Center of Excellence for the Acceleration of Harm Reduction (CoEHAR) at the University of Catania, Italy. This Center was set up with funds from Philip Morris International through the Foundation for a Smoke-free World (Foundation).

The French/South African author, Delon Human, has a history of collaborating with British American Tobacco and is scheduled to speak at the annual tobacco industry sponsored event Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum (GTNF) this September. Another South African, Kgosi Letlape, is also scheduled to speak in GTFN this September. Three other authors, Francis P. Crawley, Scott Ballin and Karl Fagerström have been speakers in previous GTNF.

The public health community in the Philippines has denounced the new vape law (Vaporized Nicotine and Non-Nicotine Products Regulation Act RA No.11900)  as retrogressive and industry-driven law which opens the floodgates for youth consumption and subsequent recruitment into nicotine addiction. Pro-industry group, CAPHRA however has described it as “the most progressive vaping legislation in Asia Pacific now makes the Philippines an international leader in effective Tobacco Harm Reduction.”

This new law has lowered the purchase age of vape products from 21 to 18 years but the President of Vapers PH, a CAPHRA member, claimed it strongly protects minors. Vapers PH also repeats the 95% safer mantra.

CAPHRA (Coalition of Asia Pacific Tobacco Harm Reduction Advocates) is an alliance of tobacco harm reduction advocates and their respective organizations in the region. It promotes vaping and is a member of the International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organizations (INNCO), an international network promoting ENDS/HTPs which has received a grant from the Foundation. Besides its links with INNCO, CAPHRA does not have a direct connection with the tobacco industry, but its members have participated in activities supported by the tobacco industry.

Hong Kong has successfully brought their smoking prevalence way down to 9.5% by applying stringent tobacco control measures based on the WHO FCTC. They also banned e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products. Smoking prevalence in Singapore and Australia is close to single digit without use of e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products.

Malaysia and Vietnam are currently strengthening their tobacco control legislation and they should not be mislead by pro-industry groups claiming the 95% safer factoid. Instead they should apply Article 2.1 of the WHO FCTC which recommends governments go beyond the treaty. In this case, governments should ban these emerging tobacco products, phase out cigarettes and adopt end game goals towards a tobacco free generation.