What are e-cigarettes?

An e-cigarette

Electronic cigarette (e-cigarettes) are devices that enable the user to inhale nicotine. They work by heating and vaporising a solution that contains nicotine, glycerine and sometimes flavourings. Inhaling nicotine from an e-cigarette is referred to as vaping.

Since there is no burning involved with e-cigarettes there is no smoke produced and hence no tar or carbon monoxide, which are two of the most toxic products of smoking. The vapour from e-cigarettes has been found to contain some potentially harmful chemicals but these are at much lower levels than they are in conventional tobacco smoke. However, some recent studies have linked the flavourings in some e-cigarettes to lung damage.

According to a 2020 report into vaping from PHE:

Young people:

  • Current vaping prevalence (weekly or less than weekly) among young people in England has remained reasonably steady with the best recent estimates putting it at 6% of 11 to 15-year-olds in 2018 and 5% of 11 to 18-year-olds in 2019.
  • Older children are more likely to vape.
  • Current vaping is mainly concentrated in young people who have experience of smoking. Less than 1% of young people who have never smoked are current vapers.
  • Current smoking prevalence (weekly or less than weekly) among 11 to 15-year-olds halved between 2009 (11%) and 2018 (5%,) but has remained relatively steady since 2014.
  • Young people’s perceptions of the relative harms of vaping compared with smoking are increasingly out of line with the evidence. The proportion of 11 to 18-year-olds who thought that vaping was less harmful than cigarettes declined from 68% in 2014 to 52% in 2019.
  • Most young people who have tried vaping, do so from curiosity.


  • Current vaping prevalence (any current use) among adults in England has remained stable since 2014, and in 2019 was between 5% and 7%.
  • Current vaping prevalence among smokers varied between 14% and 20% across surveys, again showing little change since 2014.
  • Current vaping prevalence among former smokers has continued to rise and was 12% to 13% in 2019.
  • Vaping remains most common among smokers and former smokers, with less than 1% of people who have never smoked currently vaping.
  • The proportion of current smokers who have not tried vaping products remained at 37% between 2018 and 2019.
  • Smoking among adults in England has continued to decline over the past 10 years and in 2019 was around 15%.
  • Vaping prevalence is highest among people in more disadvantaged socio-economic groups, reflecting their higher levels of smoking.
  • Perceptions of harm from vaping among smokers are increasingly out of line with the evidence. The proportion who thought vaping was less harmful than cigarettes declined from 45% in 2014 to 34% in 2019. These misperceptions are particularly common among smokers who do not vape.
  • Most adults use vaping products to help them quit smoking.
  • Vapers said that banning flavoured liquids would deter them from using vaping products to help them quit or reduce their smoking. It could also push current vapers towards illicit products.

At the moment there are no e-cigarettes on the market that are licensed as medicines, which means they are not available on prescription from the NHS. However, this may change if/when more evidence on their role in helping people stop smoking becomes available.


Burning Issues: The Global State of Tobacco Harm Reduction 2020
The central theme of this report, enshrined in many international treaties, is the universal right to health, including for those who for whatever reason continue to engage in risky behaviours. Harm reduction refers to a range of pragmatic policies, regulations and actions which either reduce health risks by providing safer forms of products or substances, or encourage less risky behaviours. Harm reduction does not focus primarily on the eradication of products or behaviours | KAC, UK

Vaping in England: evidence update March 2020
This update looks at the prevalence of vaping among young people and adults. It also reviews research literature on vaping among pregnant women and people with mental health conditions | PHE, UK

Use of e-cigarettes in public places and workplaces: key principles to guide policy making, PHE, 2016

E-cigarettes: a developing public health consensus, PHE, 2016