A study reveals why we should never take vape shops for granted when it comes to proper smoking cessation.

A Cancer Research UK-funded study has displayed the essential role vape shops play in helping smokers make a more permanent change from smoking to e-cigarettes. The paper is titled “A Qualitative Exploration of the Role of Vape Shop Environments in Supporting Smoking Abstinence.” It comes to us via research conducted at the University of East Anglia and was headed by Dr Emma Ward, Senior Research Associate in Norwich Medical School and a member of the UEA Addiction Research group on smoking relapse prevention studies.

Forty people who had switched from smoking to vaping were interviewed for the study and quizzed about their experience of support via vape shops. Researchers also surveyed six vape shops throughout the country, closely monitoring interactions between staff and customers – be they curious smokers or vaping regulars trying to stay off the habit.

A summation of the results in the opening abstract described a positive correlation between a supportive environment and persistence in smoking cessation:

“At an individual level, smoking abstinence was supported through shop assistants’ attempts to understand customers’ smoking preferences in order to: (i) tailor advice about the most appropriate product; and (ii) offer an ongoing point of contact for practical help. At an interpersonal level, shops offered opportunity to socialise and reinforce a vaping identity …”

Like all valuable research, the piece also laid out where vape shops (and the general business and consumer culture) need improvement, citing certain atmospheres and practices which may be off-putting:

“…although the environment was perceived as intimidating for some (e.g., new and female users)”

An additional bonus finding was also the revelation that shops are on the whole, law abiding and keeping to regulatory practice:

“At a structural level, shops ensured easy access to products perceived to be good value by customers and had adapted to legislative changes.”

The research team found advantages in logistics and efficiency for new and inexperienced vapers in acquiring the right liquids and getting their mods fully optimised. Before the expansion of vape shops, users had to rely solely on trial and error, a risky method considering how addictive smoking is. The study was clear in its conclusion that “shop assistants troubleshoot with customers if they had relapsed and try and find a solution, such as fixing their device or upping their nicotine strength.”

Dr Ward also saw the social and personal aspects of the vape shop culture as filling certain gaps left by quitting smoking:

“Smokers are addicted to nicotine, but there are also lots of complex psycho social behaviours associated with smoking.” 

This is helpfully laid in an infographic which identifies the key elements of a ‘vaping identity’ as one formed in three environments at three levels: structural, interpersonal and personal, with their defining characteristics displayed.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen formal academic research conducted into this topic. In April 2015, noted vaping advocate Professor Riccardo Polosa, Director of the Institute for Internal and Emergency Medicine of the University of Catania in Italy, published the first venture; a prospective 12-month survey. Despite this foundational bedrock, research must always be updated. Fortunately, both studies have vindicated vape shops and found their inclusion and support important. Professor Polosa’s conclusion expressed confidence in the effectiveness of shops:

“Here we have shown for the first time that combining availability of appealing e-vapour products for smoking substitution with professional advice from vape shops staff it is possible to achieve high and stable success rates.” 

But, as we’ve seen before, when it comes to progress and meaningful reform in smoking cessation and public health efforts, studies and evidence gathering are often just the beginning. These steps are essential, but the road to change involves gathering political clout and widespread support. As the story of the 2018 research spread, immediately following its publication on February 9, vape industry advocates and public health officials also stressed the importance of strengthening ties between vape shops and the public health powers-that-be, with some stressing a potential collaboration with the NHS. The origin of this sentiment is found in the closing statements of the abstract, which states:

“Health professionals could capitalise on this through partnership working with shops, to ensure best outcomes for clients wanting to use e-cigarettes to quit smoking.”  

The academic mind is a cautious one, ever mindful of the need for moderation, scepticism, patience and greater knowledge. In the study’s closing statements, the authors warn against generalisation and remind us that further investigation is needed. However they also tell us that,

“the advice witnessed as being given by shops mirrors advice given by experienced vapers in other research.”

Moving forward, this is a weighty endorsement for further collaboration between the healthcare establishment and vape trade, as well as another encouraging development for the trade’s allies and leaders. The IBVTA have been highly supportive. Ian Green, Owner of Southampton Vaping Centre and Chairman of the IBVTA’s Vendor Committee, contributed this statement:

“It is wonderful to see a study that recognises the positive impact vape shops are having on the public health landscape. Every day IBVTA members across the country are helping people switch from smoking to vaping. Indeed, as the study identifies, our businesses are on the frontline day in day out and are the best solution for smokers and vapers.”

The study’s closing statement looks ahead to an escalation in this recent, promising alliance between public health services specialising in cessation, and the many vape shops in the country:

“Future research could consider evaluating joint working between Stop Smoking Services and vape shops to help smokers achieve and maintain smoking cessation.” 

*The text was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. You can access the study and infographics in full at mdpi.com.