Background: E-cigarettes are increasingly being viewed, incorrectly, as more harmful than cigarettes. This may discourage smokers from switching to e-cigarettes. One potential explanation for these increasingly harmful attitudes is conflicting information presented in the media and online, and from public health bodies.
Aims and methods: In this prospectively registered online study, we aimed to examine the impact of conflicting public health information on smokers' and vapers' e-cigarette harm perceptions. Daily UK smokers who do not vape (n = 334) and daily UK vapers (n = 368) were randomized to receive either: (1) a consistent harm reduction statement from two different public health bodies (Harm Reduction), (2) a consistent negative statement about e-cigarette harms from two different public health bodies (Negative), (3) a harm reduction statement from one public health body and a negative statement from another (Conflict), and (4) a statement of the risks of smoking followed by a harm reduction statement from one public health body and a negative statement from another (Smoking Risk + Conflict). Participants then answered questions regarding their perceptions of e-cigarette harm.
Results: The Negative condition had the highest e-cigarette harm perceptions, significantly higher than the Smoking Risk + Conflict condition (MD = 5.4, SE = 1.8, p < .016, d = 0.3 [CI 0.73 to 10.04]), which did not differ from the Conflict condition (MD = 1.5, SE = 1.8, p = .836, d = 0.1 [CI -3.14 to 6.17]). The Conflict condition differed from the Harm Reduction condition, where harm perceptions were lowest (MD = 5.4, SE = 1.8, p = .016, d = 0.3 [CI 0.74 to 10.07]).
Conclusions: These findings are the first to demonstrate that, compared to harm reduction information, conflicting information increases e-cigarette harm perceptions amongst vapers, and smokers who do not vape.
Implications: This research provides the first empirical evidence that conflicting information increases smokers' and vapers' e-cigarette harm perceptions, compared to harm reduction information. This may have a meaningful impact on public health as e-cigarette harm perceptions can influence subsequent smoking and vaping behavior. Conflicting information may dissuade smokers, who have the most to gain from accurate e-cigarette harm perceptions, from switching to e-cigarettes. These findings indicate that public health communications that are consensus-based can lower harm perceptions of e-cigarettes, and have the potential to reduce morbidity and mortality attributable to tobacco smoking.
© The Author(s) 2022. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco.