New report reveals “serious problem” in public understanding of tobacco ahead of landmark government review on smoking

  • New report from think tank Demos, Myths and Misinformation has revealed the true scale of the public’s misunderstanding around the harms posed by tobacco.

Survey of 2,000 people shows 93% of Brits overestimate the health risk of nicotine, one of the main chemicals in tobacco, with over 60’s and lowest socio economic groups (C2DE) most likely to be misinformed.

Majority of health problems come from the carcinogens produced by burning tobacco, including tar and carbon monoxide.

Research also exposes the scale of misunderstanding around vaping, with 90% of Brits’ responses ‘broadly incorrect’ about its harm compared to tobacco cigarettes; this despite public health evidence asserting that vaping is unlikely to exceed 5% of the harm that comes from smoking cigarettes.

The report comes just before the Khan review into tobacco control (25th May), commissioned by the government as part of their plan to make England smoke free by 2030.

There is a “serious problem” in the public’s understanding of how tobacco harms our health and the contribution that vaping can make to smoking cessation, according to new research from cross-party think tank, Demos.

The report, titled Myths and Misinformation, has explored the barriers to smoking cessation and the uptake of nicotine alternatives. Its findings are being launched just days before Javed Khan’s government-commissioned, independent review to reduce health inequalities as part of their plan to make England smoke free by 2030.

In revealing the extent to which the over 60’s and those in the C2DE groups are most likely to hold misperceptions around the harm of nicotine, the research highlights the socio economic disparities that remain a significant obstacle to the government’s plans around smoking cessation.

When asked, “what portion of the health risks of smoking comes from nicotine in tobacco cigarettes?”, just 7% of all respondents answered correctly: ‘none or very small risk’. 30% responded ‘nearly all the risk’, which is the least correct response.

Amongst the over 60’s, just 4% answered correctly whereas 38% responded ‘nearly all the risk.’ For the 18-29 year olds, these figures were 6% and 15% respectively.

Amongst the C2DE group, 8% answered correctly, while 36% believed it was ‘nearly all the risk’. This was compared with 7% and 27% respectively for the ABC1s, the highest socio economic groups.

When asked whether the following, false statement, “the nicotine in tobacco cigarettes is the chemical that causes most of the cancer” was true, 48% of survey respondents answered ‘true’, 26% ‘false’ and 26% ‘don’t know’.

Once again, the over 60s and C2DE groups were the most prone to harm misperceptions, with 60% and 53% respectively incorrectly believing the statement to be true, compared with 43% and 46% for 18-29 year olds and ABC1s respectively.

Myths and Misinformation also exposes the scale of misunderstanding around vaping. The public health evidence is that harm from vaping is unlikely to exceed 5% of the harm that comes from smoking. It therefore remains one of the most promising avenues towards smoking cessation.

However, when asked whether they felt vaping was harmful in and of itself, 77% of respondents said yes, and 13% said they didn’t know. When asked whether vaping was harmful compared to smoking – on a sliding scale of 1 (completely safe) to 7 (more harmful than smoking) – just 10% answered either 1 or 2, whereas 90% answered 3 to 7.

Polly Mackenzie, Chief Executive of Demos and author of Myths and Misinformation, said:

“In light of the government’s aim to make England smoke free by 2030, our research provides a timely reminder of the scale of the challenge that lies ahead. Our report shows there is a serious problem in the public’s understanding of how tobacco harms our health. It also reveals that simply not enough people are aware of the extent to which switching to nicotine alternatives can aid smoking cessation.

“Vaping is one of the most important pathways to quitting cigarettes, yet far too many people hold misperceptions around the harm it poses. This is particularly, and most worryingly, true for the same socio economic groups which already experience the worst health outcomes.

“By highlighting the scale of misunderstanding, and identifying which groups are most misinformed, we hope our report can make a vital contribution to the national effort on smoking cessation.”

This report is the first in Demos’ series of research studies and events looking at regulating the future of vaping. It follows a discussion paper published in March.