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.

During the last five years e-cigarettes have become widely available and increasingly popular. According to Public Health England around 2.8m adults in Great Britain use e-cigarettes. While there are some public health concerns over the uptake of e-cigarettes by non-smokers, many doctors believe that they are valuable in helping smokers quit or reduce their tobacco consumption.

According to the Health Survey for England published by NHS Digital in December 2016:

  • In 2015 5% of adults were using e-cigarettes. This was a small increase from 2013 when 3% of adults were e-cigarette users.
  • The prevalence of ever having used e-cigarettes was much higher among current smokers (40%). Only 1% of those who had never smoked had used an e-cigarette.

This suggests that very few non-smokers have taken up using e-cigarettes. However, because e-cigarettes are still fairly new, it is possible that we do not yet have a complete picture of their safety. One possible concern are the reports of some e-cigarettes exploding or causing fires. However, new rules for e-cigarettes and their refill containers came into effect in the UK on May 20 2016 which ensure that there are minimum standards for the safety and quality of all e-cigarettes and refill containers.

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.


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

Updated December 2016