Accurate perception of the safety of e-cigarettes relative to cigarettes declined in the UK from 2013 to 2014, according to a study from King’s College and University College London.
Leonie Brose and colleagues conducted a longitudinal web-based survey of smokers and ex-smokers from 2012 to 2014 (abstract here). They found that 67% of smokers in the first two years perceived e-cigarettes as less harmful, but only 60% held that view in 2014. That decline was mirrored in a 6-point increase (from 11% to 17%) in the percentage who believed that e-cigs and cigarettes are equally harmful.
The researchers note that their results were in line with other UK surveys that “found significant increases in the proportion who considered e-cigarettes to cause about the same level of harm to the user as cigarettes from 2013 to 2015 (references here and here).” They also observe that “the proportion of US smokers aware of e-cigarettes who perceived them to be less harmful than cigarettes was smaller in a survey conducted in 2012/2013 than in surveys conducted in 2010 (here).”
Brose et al. speculate that the decline in perception of e-cigarettes as less harmful “may be due to a predominance of reports and discussions focusing on the risks of e-cigarettes without comparison to the much greater risks posed by cigarettes.” I have often written about the danger of biased and misleading communications (examples here, here, here, here and here).
The UK researchers found that “accurately perceiving e-cigarettes as less harmful than cigarettes predicted subsequent use of e-cigarettes among respondents who had not previously tried an e-cigarette.” In other words, understanding that e-cigarettes are safer than smoking is critical for motivating smokers to switch. Conversely, scaremongering and obfuscation of relative safety discourages smokers from quitting their far riskier behavior.