VAPING is not a gateway into smoking and may be successfully replacing it, according to a study.
Queen Mary University researchers said they found no proof that e-cigarette users move onto tobacco because of the habit.
It comes amid concerns that brightly coloured and flavoured vapes are getting teenagers hooked on nicotine.
Ministers are planning to toughen restrictions to protect youngsters by banning disposable pens sold in supermarkets and corner shops across the UK.
They argue that single-use e-cigs are being targeted at younger teens despite an age limit of 18.
The Queen Mary study compared rates of smoking and vaping between 2004 and 2019 in countries including the UK, US and Australia.
It found cigarette sales and smoking rates fell faster in Britain and the US than in Oz, where e-cigs are tightly controlled.
Professor Peter Hajek, from Queen Mary University of London, said: “The results of this study alleviate the concern that access to e-cigarettes and other nicotine products promote smoking.
“There is no sign of that, and there are some signs that they in fact compete against cigarettes.
“More data over a longer time period are needed to determine this effect.”
The study, in the journal Public Health Research, also looked at nicotine alternatives in Japan and South Korea.
The launch of devices that heat tobacco instead of burning it coincided with a big drop in cigarette sales, it said.
Co-author Professor Lion Shahab – also co-director of the UCL Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group – added: “This analysis provides reassurance that countries which have adopted a more progressive stance towards e-cigarettes have not seen a detrimental impact on smoking rates.”
Professor Brian Ferguson, Director of the Public Health Research Programme at the National Institute for Health and Care Research – which funded the study – said scientists’ initial findings were ‘valuable’ but “no firm conclusions can be drawn yet”.
He called for further research into the impact of e-cigs on smoking rates.
Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that a record 4.5million Brits now vape every day.
Meanwhile the number smoking tobacco has fallen to 6.4million, the lowest number since records began in 2011.
Vaping has been shown to be significantly less dangerous than smoking in the short-term and the NHS recommends using them to quit tobacco.
But the devices aren’t entirely risk free – research has shown that vapes might cause damage to the lungs in the same way that cigarettes do.