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News reports of cannabis vaping deaths damaged perceptions of e-cigarettes in England, study finds

13 January 2022

News reports from the US of serious lung injuries and deaths related to cannabis-containing vaping devices may have negatively impacted attitudes towards nicotine-containing vaping devices in England, a new study has found.

Researchers at the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) analysed responses collected via the British Social Attitudes survey in 2019, when news of vaping-related deaths and severe lung injuries in the US were being widely reported in the UK.

When respondents’ individual characteristics were taken into account, people interviewed after the news story broke were around 40% less likely to have positive views of vaping than those interviewed before the news story broke. 

People interviewed after the news story broke had significantly more negative views on a range of issues, including the health impacts of vaping, the benefits of vaping when compared with smoking, and the usefulness of vaping as a means of stopping smoking.

It was later established that injuries and deaths in the US were likely caused by ingredients in cannabis-containing vaping devices. However, the UK news coverage at the time raised the question of potential risk to vapers’ health from using e-cigarettes.

Views on health effects of vaping

Despite the impact of negative news coverage on people’s views, the survey found most people in England do correctly recognise that vaping is less harmful than smoking.

Around 6 out of 10 people thought that vaping was less harmful than smoking (58%) and that passive vaping was less harmful than passive smoking (62%).

A similar proportion (63%) said that vaping helped people reduce the amount they smoked.

However, attitudes towards vaping in England are not overwhelmingly positive.

Most respondents who took part in the survey thought that vaping (75%) and the vapour produced from another person’s e-cigarette (57%) were harmful to people’s health, while 38% agreed that vaping was an effective way to stop smoking.

Libertarian types more positive about vaping

Researchers also examined the role of political attitudes in people’s views on vaping in England.

People with authoritarian attitudes were twice as likely (44%) as those with libertarian attitudes (22%) to have negative views of vaping.

Where respondents fell on a scale of left-wing to right-wing political attitudes was not associated with their views towards vaping.

Isabel Taylor, Research Director at the National Centre for Social Research, said: “News of serious lung injuries and deaths related to vaping in the US does appear to have impacted people’s views about the risks of vaping in England. Although these were later found to be caused by cannabis vaping devices, the initial reporting of the story appears to have influenced people’s attitudes to the harmfulness of vaping and how useful it can be to help people quit smoking.”

ENDS

For more information please contact:

Oliver Paynel, Communications Manager, National Centre for Social Research
oliver.paynel@natcen.ac.uk
Direct: 0207 549 9550
Mobile: 07734 960 071

Or Katie Crabb, Head of Marketing and Communications, National Centre for Social Research
katie.crabb@natcen.ac.uk
Direct: 0207 549 8504

Notes to editors

1. The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), Britain’s largest independent social research organisation, aims to promote a better-informed society through high quality social research (www.natcen.ac.uk).

2. This research was commissioned by Public Health England in 2020. The survey was commissioned by Public Health England in 2019 and conducted via NatCen’s British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey 2019.

3. The 2019 BSA survey consisted of 3,224 face-to-face interviews with a representative, random sample of adults in Britain. Interviews were carried out in Great Britain by NatCen between July and October 2019.

4. In August 2019, the first cluster of an outbreak of severe respiratory illness was reported to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This was identified as a vaping-related illness, termed “E-cigarette, or Vaping Product, Use Associated Lung Injury” (EVALI) with multiple clusters of the outbreak reported across the US in subsequent months.

5. Although these cases were reported in the US, with very few reports of EVALI across Europe, news of these vaping-related deaths and severe lung injuries were widely reported in the UK.

6. This news story was reported halfway through the BSA 2019’s fieldwork period, which ran from 6th July 2019 to 27th October 2019.  2,380 interviews were completed before the end of August 2019 and 844 were completed afterwards, offering a unique opportunity to compare respondents’ attitudes towards vaping before and after this news story broke.

7. The views expressed in this report are those of the report authors and editors alone.