An estimated 2.6 million people now use e-cigarettes in the UK. And this rapid rise in popularity – along with the huge range of products on sale – has meant that research on the devices has struggled to keep up.

It’s no surprise then that e-cigarettes have become a bit of a contentious public health issue, with vapers, scientists and the media all debating the potential positive or negative consequences of their use.

As we’ve previously said, e-cigarettes are almost certainly far safer than tobacco cigarettes.

But the only way to settle this debate – and to realise their potential – is through research.

Long-term, high-quality studies are crucial to provide reliable evidence about these products’ effects on our behaviour, physiology and health, and allow us to continue to provide evidence-based recommendations to policy makers.

And since policy makers in the UK are already facing legislative decisions around e-cigarettes, the planning about what research to do has to happen now.

With so much to gain if e-cigarettes are proven to help people ditch tobacco, we’re making research on e-cigarettes a key priority.

So let’s take a look at the research we’re already funding, and how we’re working with the research community to identify new questions to answer.

What we’re already funding

It’s important to point out that we already fund research on e-cigarettes. In fact, we’ve recently increased our budget for e-cigarette research, with an additional £5 million via both our Tobacco Advisory Group, and our Population Research Committee.

This means we’ve been able to fund an extra 12 research projects. This includes exciting new research on how young adults understand and experience the devices; their impact in people with mental illness; and a long-term study looking at ‘real-world’ examples of how e-cigarettes may help people quit smoking.

These projects will help answer some of the burning questions on e-cigarettes.

But what else do we need to know?

To find out, we held two workshops earlier this year in collaboration with the British Lung Foundation (BLF), British Heart Foundation (BHF), the Department of Health, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Wellcome Trust..

What should we be funding?

The workshops were themed around research that would look at how e-cigarettes work, and what happens when people use the devices. And we brought together scientists, health professionals, policy-makers and representatives from the vaping community to discuss the key research questions.

The workshops were aimed at understanding what we already know, and identifying the key research gaps in this area. And a number of key priority areas for future research were raised for further consideration:

  • Drivers: What are the external factors that affect people’s behaviour and perceptions of e-cigarettes (e.g., marketing, regulation, public health messaging etc.)?
  • Perceptions: What are the psychological factors (e.g., attitudes, beliefs, etc.) that influence how people use e-cigarettes (e.g., intermittent, regular, dual, non-use)?
  • Behaviours: What are the patterns of e-cigarette and tobacco cigarette use in the UK? And, crucially, how effective are e-cigarettes for quitting smoking?
  • Mechanisms: What are the biological effects of nicotine and constituents of vapour in e-cigarettes? How does this vary between vapers and devices (e.g. puff duration, voltage, particle size and density etc)?
  • Outcomes: What are the longer-term health effects from using e-cigarettes? (e.g., in pregnancy, quit rates, relapse rates etc. and can we use early biomarkers or existing cohort studies). And what are the potential consequences for vulnerable populations? (e.g., pregnant, adolescents, mental health, etc.)

We’ll also be working with the workshop partners and other funders, including the British Lung Foundation (BLF) and the Wellcome Trust, to promote our existing funding streams to e-cigarette researchers.

Working together

As well as the workshop, we’ve also been working with Public Health England on the new UK Electronic Cigarette Research Forum (UKECRF), which has established a network of researchers, policy makers and practitioners to discuss research relating to electronic cigarettes and how this relates to policy.

The UKECRF is chaired by Professor Ann McNeill from the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies. And we’ve been working with the University of Stirling to provide a series of monthly updates to this network on new research as it emerges.

Another way we’ve been working with other funding organisations to create additional resources that may help e-cigarette research, is with the Cohort Directory – a list of ongoing large UK population studies that could provide useful data to researchers studying e-cigarettes.

Created by the MRC, in collaboration with us, BHF, ESRC, and the Wellcome Trust, the directory helps researchers and policymakers find and use them more easily.

What next?

It’s absolutely vital that people are made aware of any potential tobacco industry involvement with e-cigarettes

To fully capitalise on e-cigarettes’ potential, while minimising any risks, we clearly need a better understanding of their impact.

But it’s only by taking the time to do high-quality research that we’ll confident we can minimise any risks associated with e-cigarettes – while capitalising on their potential benefits.

This is a fast-moving market, with products evolving alongside public perceptions, marketing and regulation, both in the UK, and at an EU level with the Tobacco Products Directive coming into force in 2016.

And it’s absolutely vital that people are made aware of any potential tobacco industry involvement with e-cigarettes. With Big Tobacco’s big role in marketing deadly tobacco products for many years, we must make sure they aren’t given the opportunity to engage in public health discussions around e-cigarettes too.

– Lucy Davies is a research funding manager at Cancer Research UK

  • If you are interested in being involved in future activities relating to e-cigarette research please contact our Involvement Team at involvement@cancer.org.uk