Nicotine-Free Vaping: A Blessing or a Curse?

The official definition often used by academics for vape devices is ENDS – Electronic Nicotine Containing Devices. 

It’s a clear example of how some academics simply don’t understand what they are studying, at least when it comes to vaping. To ‘vape’ means to inhale a vapour created by a mixture of propylene glycol and vegetable glycerine – nicotine is an optional extra.  

Still, in this blog we’ve often focussed on nicotine, and that’s because the majority of vapers use vape devices to replace smoking. But that also ignores two other areas – a significant proportion of people who go on to eliminate nicotine entirely and people who want to experiment with vaping. 

How many people vape nicotine-free e-liquid?
Given the almost total lack of mention of nicotine-free vaping, you might assume few people use it. There’s little data publicly available, and perhaps that’s because it doesn’t tie into the story that vaping is leading a new generation of young people into a lifetime of nicotine and smoking addiction. 

Another problem is that new users often don’t know whether there is nicotine in their e-liquid or not. So even if we ask people in future surveys whether they use nicotine in their vaping, it may be difficult to report accurate figures. 

However, one piece of research did suggest that nicotine-free vaping is significant. 

A 2021 study by Tokle et al found that two thirds of adolescent vapers in Norway used nicotine-free vape devices. What’s more, those who preferred nicotine-containing devices were more likely to have previously used tobacco.  

What are the advantages of nicotine free vaping?

Allows experimentation without the risk of addiction
Vaping is considerably safer than smoking, but that doesn’t mean it’s risk free. Public Health England continues to say that vaping carries 5% of the risk of smoking – but that’s 5% of a big risk. If you’re a smoker, it’s a no-brainer to switch to vaping, but if you’re not a smoker, it’s a no-brainer NOT to start vaping. 

At the same time, we need to be realistic. People still start smoking despite knowing the dangers, and it’s inevitable that some people will experiment with vaping. Sometimes this will be down to curiosity, other times down to peer pressure. 

The evidence so far suggests that experimentation with vaping is far less likely to turn into addiction than experimentation with smoking. (That may be because nicotine is not the only addictive element in tobacco.) However, it makes sense to play safe. 

So, if you are going to experiment with vaping, knowing that it is likely to carry some risk, it makes far more sense to do so with a nicotine-free option. 

For example, maybe you are going to a club or a festival with friends who vape, and feel pressured to join in. Simply choose a nicotine-free device or e-liquid (nobody will know the difference) and ditch it afterwards.  

There’s also an advantage to steering young people who will vape towards nicotine-free products. The study by Rikke found that few young people who used nicotine-free devices or e-liquids became regular nicotine vapers, and the majority became non-users. 

The final step in ending nicotine addiction
Many vapers are not satisfied with using vaping as an alternative to smoking and instead want to stop nicotine use altogether. Some vapers choose to do this by slowly reducing nicotine content. 

Zero nicotine is the final step in this process. It enables vapers to enjoy the sensation of vaping, the taste and the hand-to-mouth action, so they only have to deal with one part of the quitting process at a time. Once they have eliminated nicotine dependence, many will then go on to quit vaping altogether. 

Potential drawbacks of nicotine-free vaping

Potential relapse to smoking
If you’re switching from smoking to vaping, the priority should be to stop smoking, not to stop nicotine use. So what is the impact on this if you use nicotine-free vaping options too quickly, or right from the start?

To get a better idea, I spoke to Louise Ross, who is one of the most knowledgeable people I know on quitting smoking*. She told me:

“My concern is that people who don’t get the right advice will go for a nicotine-free vape straight away because they’re terrified of the nicotine. They think that if vaping is a good idea, let’s do it without the nicotine.”

In fact, the opposite is true – research shows that the more nicotine people can get from alternatives to cigarettes, the more likely they are to quit smoking. 

The National Centre for Smoking Cessation and Training (NCSCT) is very aware of this danger, and advises stop smoking counsellors that:

“Some people may wish to stop vaping before they are ready because they believe that nicotine is harmful. Practitioners should be prepared to reassure people that nicotine is a fairly harmless component of both cigarettes and e-cigarettes; communicating the importance that they use enough of it and don’t stop using it too soon.”

Vaping more

As Louise pointed out, many people are worried about nicotine use because they wrongly think that nicotine is the cause of smoking diseases. This leads them to try and reduce the amount of nicotine they are using. 

The problem is, what usually happens is that, unconsciously, people vape more to try and get the same amount of nicotine. However, any harm from vaping is likely to come from inhaling vapour rather than from the nicotine in that vapour. 

I personally use the highest amount of nicotine I can, as I find I then vape a lot less. I also have friends who have reduced the nicotine level of their e-liquid to the lowest possible but use three or four times as much e-liquid as me. 

Why? In smoking, smokers self-titrate, which means that as they switch to lower-nicotine cigarettes they smoke more to get more nicotine. A 2016 study by Dawkins et al found that the same thing happens with vapers – with people doubling their consumption when switching to low-strength e-liquid. 

An unanswered question is what happens when vapers switch to zero-nicotine vaping? Will they vape more in a futile attempt to get more nicotine? Until we know more, I’d suggest that nicotine-free vaping should primarily be used by existing nicotine addicts as a way to quit nicotine, but not as a long-term alternative to vaping nicotine. If you don’t want to quit, and the amount you vape has increased significantly, it may be worth returning to vaping nicotine.  

For vapers who do wish to reduce the amount of nicotine they use, as well as for those who “just want something to puff on” Louise Ross recommends having two tanks, one with nicotine-free e-liquid and one without. 

When you need it, you puff on the tank with nicotine e-liquid in, but when you can manage not to, you puff on the tank without nicotine. 

How we should change messaging around vaping?

Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) recently put some excellent advice on messaging around vaping to young people. They emphasised that while young people should be advised not to vape, they should also be informed about the relative risks (that vaping is safer than smoking). 

Assuming the single study from Norway is accurate, I think there’s potential for this to be developed further. For example, young people should be informed that nicotine-free vaping is not safer than vaping nicotine, because we don’t want people to wrongly think there is no harm to vaping nicotine-free devices. 

However, they should also need to know that there are nicotine-free vape devices available. It might also be a good idea to advise that if they are determined to vape, they should vape with nicotine-free e-liquids in order to minimise the risk of creating dependence.

Do “nicotine-free” devices contain nicotine?
Do note that some illegal devices that claim to be nicotine-free may actually contain nicotine. This is particularly a problem in countries where vaping has been banned or undergone an effective ban. As we’ve seen in countries like Australia, vapers don’t stop vaping because it is banned, but they do lose access to safe devices. 

If you’re lucky enough to live in a country where vaping is carefully regulated, all you need to do is ensure you buy a legal device from a reputable shop. 

What can I use for nicotine-free vaping?
While I generally recommend using refillable devices (which are both more cost-effective and better for the environment), if you just want to experiment with a zero-nicotine device I’d suggest using a disposable device. Buying a re-usable device entails some commitment to vaping – in contrast, disposable devices are commitment free and can be discarded (responsibly) after a day’s use. 

Not all disposable devices have nicotine-free options, and some nicotine-free options may be out of stock. This is largely due to supply issues. Fortunately, the current most popular disposable device, the Elf Bar, does come with nicotine-free options.

In summary
It’s a mistake to use nicotine-free vaping to try and reduce harm – and in fact, it could increase harm. However, nicotine-free options likely have great value in allowing people who are determined to experiment to do so without risking dependence, and may also be a way to help people to quit nicotine entirely.

Just don’t forget that the priority should be quitting smoking first – and don’t let a rush to eliminate nicotine get in the way of that! 

* Louise Ross has multiple roles including being Chair of the New Nicotine Alliance, Business Development Manager at the Smoke Free App, clinical consultant at the NCSCT, and former head of Leicester Stop Smoking Service.