Public Health England () said in 2015, via an independent scientific report that the electronic cigarette was 95% less dangerous than smoked tobacco. Since then, other public health organizations have followed including the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and the University of Victoria in Canada.
If other reports such as those regularly published by WHO are less optimistic about general benefits of e-cigarettes, and may for example Questioning its efficacy in smoking cessation, raise the risk of re-normalization Smoking, or the fear of gateway to youth smoking, there is however a general consensus on reducing the risks that electronic cigarettes bring to smoked tobacco.
Most medical experts now agree that e-cigarettes are a lot safer than their old-style tobacco counterparts, but a lot of smokers who’re thinking about trying them still have some questions. One thing that (strangely) we’re hearing more often is the question, “Is it safe to vape without nicotine?”
This is strange because, usually, people are claiming that it’s not safe to vape with nicotine! The exaggerated dangers of this mild drug are one of the most commonly quoted reasons why e-cigs are bad and must be controlled. Some countries have even passed laws restricting the nicotine content; in the EU the strongest liquids that can be sold are 20mg/ml, and in Australia you can’t legally buy juice with any nicotine at all.
In fact the “dangers” of nicotine are mostly imaginary. Yes, it’s poisonous in large doses, but the concentrations and quantities in– even the stronger ones found outside the EU – won’t do you any harm. Nicotine isn’t even really addictive if it’s separated from the other chemicals in tobacco smoke, so the alleged risks of vaping nicotine can be pretty much ignored.
So why are people worried about the safety of vaping without nicotine? That’s a good question actually. Taking nicotine out of the liquid certainly doesn’t make it more toxic, but there are some legitimate questions to be asked.
Why vape without nicotine anyway?
Most vapers use nicotine-containing liquid, but not all do. If you’re vaping as a way to stop smoking, or to stay off the cigarettes, then it might not be safe to vape without nicotine. The possible risk is nothing to do with vaping; it’s that you might find your e-cigarette so unsatisfying that you go out and buy a pack of Marlboro. Before you know it you’ll be back to smoking twenty a day, and that definitely isn’t safe.
Some former smokers who’ve switched to vaping want to cut out nicotine entirely. That’s fine, but it’s important not to go too fast. Cut down gradually, in small steps, and take your time. Most smokers who switch should start vaping on 24mg/ml liquid, or 18mg/ml if you’re stuck with the EU’s pointless restrictions. After a few months you can try cutting down to 12mg/ml, then in another few months drop to 6.
This seems slow, but remember that if you’re an ex-smoker your body is used to nicotine. If you try to cut right down to zero in a couple of months you’re probably going to fail, and there’s a good chance you’ll end up smoking again. It’s better to vape high-nicotine liquids for the rest of your life than end up smoking for another month, because the amount of nicotine in e-cigs will not do you any harm.
Many ex-smokers are happy to keep vaping, and if that sounds like you, there really isn’t any point in trying to cut out nicotine. Others see vaping as a half-way house, and in that case it does make some sense to drop nicotine levels gradually. The important thing is not to rush it. If you aim to drop your nicotine to zero over the course of a year, then cut your vaping down until you stop completely after another six months or so, that’s probably about right.
The non-smoker problem
But what if you want to try vaping and you’re not a smoker? That depends on why you want to try it. If you’re tempted to try smoking then, by all means, try a vape instead; it’s a much safer alternative, and if you can divert yourself away from lit tobacco that’s all good news. In this case, why use nicotine if you don’t already?
On the other hand, if you want to start vaping because you want to try tricks, or you think it looks cool, it’s probably best not to bother. The “tricks” aren’t really that impressive, and vaping will not turn you into a sex god. Most experts believe e-cigarettes are at least 95% safer than smoking, but while the risks are very small they probably aren’t zero; why expose yourself to them just so you can suck vapor up your nose on YouTube?
If there really is a problem with nicotine-free vaping, though, it’s most likely to be one for smokers who cut down to fast. Unless you taper off the nicotine very slowly, you’ll probably compensate by vaping more; you’ll get the same amount of nicotine by inhaling a lot more liquid. If there is a health problem with vaping it’s most likely to be connected to flavorings, so why increase the amount you vape?
In the worst case, someone who’s dropped their nicotine to zero could vape a lot of nic-free liquid in an attempt to satisfy their cravings. That means they’ll be inhaling huge amounts of flavoring. Is there a real risk in this, though? Theoretically there might be – some health effect of vaping flavorings could appear in twenty or thirty years. But is it likely? No, probably not.