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  • 31st May 2024

How media coverage of vaping restrictions might influence public perceptions: insights from a new study

To the disappointment of many anti-smoking campaigners, the Tobacco and Vapes Bill was shelved last week as the UK parliament was suspended ahead of the election in July. 

The headline measure would have banned the sale of cigarettes to anyone born after 1 January 2009, but the bill would have also allowed the UK Health Secretary to restrict the packaging, contents and flavouring of e-cigarettes, as well as how they are displayed in stores in England and Wales. These additional measures were designed to help tackle the rise in young people taking up e-cigarettes.

Although the bill itself will no longer make it onto the statute book, it is expected that at least some version of the measures will form part of both the Conservative and Labour manifestos for the upcoming general election. 

As we mentioned in our previous piece (“How worried should we be about youth vaping?”), we think that whichever party wins the election should be careful that work to prevent youth vaping does not undermine efforts to encourage smokers to quit, particularly as there are widespread and growing misperceptions about the relative harms of vaping compared to e-cigarettes. 

To find out more, we conducted an experiment to investigate what effect publicity about new vaping restrictions might have on the public’s perception of the relative harms of e-cigarettes.

What we did

We surveyed 5,899 UK representative adults, randomly selecting them to view one of six different news clippings about vaping, with some allocated to a control where they were not shown a clipping.

All participants were then asked to rate how harmful they thought vaping was in comparison to smoking.

None of the stories directly referenced the relative harms of vaping compared to traditional cigarettes, and each story was chosen to help us understand the effect that different policies and intentions might have on harm perceptions. For example, whether it made any difference if the stated aim of a policy was to protect the health of children versus protecting the environment. We also included a positive story (see condition ‘7’ in the table below) to see if it might reduce perceptions of harm.

Additionally, we looked at the impact of these stories on both the general population and on current smokers. While the perceptions of current smokers were the main area of interest for us, perceptions in the wider population are also likely to influence smokers, so we wanted to see if the effects were consistent across both groups.

What we found

1. Misperceptions are widespread – particularly among smokers

Just under 3 in 4 people in our control group thought that vapes were as harmful or more harmful than cigarettes, and this same proportion was found when we only looked at current smokers. 

Given that the best available evidence suggests that vaping poses only a small fraction of the risks of smoking, it appears that misperceptions are still widespread within the UK.

2. Current misperceptions could put off smokers from switching to e-cigarettes

We found that harm perceptions were associated with participants’ vaping status. Across our entire sample, current smokers who had never vaped were 2.5 times more likely to say that vaping was equally or more harmful than smoking compared to former smokers who currently vape (80% vs. 32%). On the basis of our findings we can’t say for sure that harm perceptions predict whether a smoker subsequently switches to e-cigarettes (as their perceptions might simply change as a result of their behaviour), but there is some wider longitudinal evidence that suggests harm perceptions do predict subsequent vaping and smoking behaviour.

3. Positive stories can improve perceptions of vaping

Those who saw a story about the Government’s new swap to stop programme – which explained that 1 million current smokers will be provided with free e-cigarette starter kits to help them quit smoking – were significantly (p < 0.001) more likely to say that vaping was less harmful than smoking compared to our control group. This effect was consistent when we just looked at current smokers too.

4. Negative stories didn’t appear to exacerbate misperceptions

We did not see any negative effects from the stories discussing additional vaping restrictions. This was consistent for current smokers as well as the general population. We are not sure why this was the case, but these stories may have been more familiar to the public and therefore already factored into their harm perceptions.

Another small step towards a smoke-free UK?

We think these findings are great news. It suggests that there is significant scope to improve smokers’ perceptions of vaping, that providing information can help shift the dial, and that smokers might switch to vaping as a result. 

Our intervention was a short news snippet and made no direct reference to the relative harms of vaping. Imagine a more direct message delivered to smokers via a trusted messenger, such as their GP or a friend or family member, and you begin to see how a well-targeted campaign or programme could encourage thousands more smokers to quit by switching to e-cigarettes.

At the same time, policy makers need to manage the risk that positive vaping communications may encourage non-smokers to start using e-cigarettes. While e-cigarettes are far less harmful than traditional cigarettes, they are still addictive and expensive and the government should not inadvertently encourage non-smokers to use them. That is why we think messages should be targeted at smokers via existing smoking cessation services and touchpoints, rather than through a more widespread media campaign.

If you want to discuss these findings or if you are interested in partnering with us to help reduce smoking rates, please contact us (or email: benji.horwell@bi.team).

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