U.K. Vape Shops Help Smokers Quit, Study Says

British vape shops are leading the way helping smokers quit cigarettes and find a healthier path.

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Before vaping came along, quitting smoking wasn’t a particularly exciting thing to do. Most smokers tried to quit “cold turkey,” with no support whatsoever. The few that opted for additional support tended to go with nicotine replacement therapy products like patches and gums, or pharmaceuticals like Chantix.

For cold-turkey quitters, the low success rates and general difficulty meant it was often a disheartening experience. After a few days of itching for a cigarette, “I’ll just have one…” turns back into a pack a day pretty quickly. Patches and gums offer nicotine, but the sterile and generally unenjoyable nature of them makes it difficult to really “get into” NRT. As for the pills, the appeal is about on par with taking a course of antibiotics — and Chantix has a bad reputation for side effects too.

Vape shops are central to the appeal of vaping because they reflect its consumer-driven nature.

This is why vaping changed the game. All of a sudden, quitting smoking became something you could actually enjoy. Grassroots communities sprung up almost instantly, and pioneering companies and vapers started a never-ending quest to get the best experience possible. The consumer-driven phenomenon opened up a new avenue for smokers looking to quit, marking a huge shift in the landscape that many traditional organizations have struggled to keep up with.

In the U.K., support of vaping is widespread and many stop smoking services are “e-cigarette friendly.” But even in this permissive environment, most smokers are likely to head down to a local vape shop rather than a stop smoking service, and people who work in stop smoking services even use vape shops to get a handle on the technology. In many ways, vape shops have actually become the front line for quitting smoking.

A new paper from U.K. researchers – including Sharon Cox and Lynne Dawkins from the Center for Addictive Behaviours Research, and Sarah Jakes from the New Nicotine Alliance (NNA) – looks into this issue in detail. How do vape shops help people quit, and can they do more?

Why are vape shops needed to help smokers switch?

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The paper opens up by exploring why vape shops are important. There are almost three million vapers in Britain, and vape shops are the most popular places for purchasing devices and e-liquid. It’s estimated that there are around 2,000 vape shops in the U.K., and while online shopping is also popular, vape shops in busy shopping areas are more likely to draw in curious smokers, and let potential new vapers try out the products. They’re also the best source of expert advice on vaping — for new vapers, and even for veterans..

Vape shops are central to the appeal of vaping because they reflect its consumer-driven nature. You aren’t being “treated for a problem,” you’re making a proactive decision to change your life — and the staff is there to give you the best chance of a successful switch. You’re free to quit the way you want to, with tons of choices and helpful staff to guide you toward the right choices.

All of a sudden, quitting smoking became something you could actually enjoy.

A previous study also looked into how vape shops may play a role in quitting. Riccardo Polosa and colleagues found that around 41 percent of a small group of smokers who bought an e-cig in a vape shop were still abstinent from cigarettes after a year, and about another 25 percent of them cut down. That study wasn’t absolutely conclusive, but it does support the common-sense idea that getting expert advice on vaping decisions would be an advantage for a smoker trying to quit.

The new study is based on interviews with 40 people (equally split between men and women) who had vaped in an effort to quit smoking, and observation sessions conducted at six vape shops (three in London and three in East Anglia). This approach gathered insights from customers directly, and also allowed a direct look at how vape shop staff interacted with people who visited their stores.

The benefits of vape shops

The new paper separates the key results about the benefits of vape shops into three groups. First is the “structural-level environment — making vaping accessible and affordable.” The second set of benefits is grouped under “friendly persona service.” Finally, the paper looks at “advice and navigating choice,” a discussion of help offered to individual vapers.

Benefit #1: availability and accessibility of vaping products

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One of the key advantages of wide availability that vapers identified is the “normalization” of vaping. When there are shops cropping up in every town, it reinforces the message that vaping is socially-acceptable and that they’re low-risk. As one vaper noted, you can try a device in-store if you’re interested, and that could easily lead to a decision to switch. Workers in vape shops often stress how much money you can save by switching too, which is a big benefit to many smokers.

The increasing acceptance of vaping among health professionals in the U.K. also strengthens the role of vape stores. One shop included in the study actually received referrals from doctors because the owner had introduced himself when he started the business. Other shops work closely with stop smoking services, who visit the stores to stay informed about vaping and what’s available for quitters.

Although TPD regulations caused some problems for the shops, they adapted well. It’s a testament to their commitment to customers that five of the six stores observed were on board with DIY mixing, and stocking flavors and nicotine shots for interested customers. They were happy to help “‘because some of [their customers] were skint, some were on the verge of smoking, so [mixing] is good for keeping people excited and keeping down the cost.”

Benefit #2: the social aspect

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Editorial credit: John Abbate / Shutterstock.com

A big part of the appeal of vape shops is their social aspect. Many have a lounge or café atmosphere, with chairs and sofas, and sometimes even coffee and snacks to encourage a relaxing community feel. This isn’t for everyone – which is why there are also many stores with a more typical retail environment – but it can help to replicate the social aspects of smoking for anybody interested.

This hints at a distinction that has been identified before and is important to how vapers use vape stores. Some are simply vaping as a method of quitting smoking, while others turn it into something of a hobby as well. For hobbyist vapers, the communal environment encouraged by vape shops reinforced their “identity” as a vaper, and this is a definite positive element to this style of shop.

However, for the more functional, “vape to quit” type of vaper, shops with a hobbyist focus could be a little off-putting. Some of the vapers felt that staff were less interested in them because they weren’t using an advanced device, and many preferred shops that had more of a traditional retail store feel and weren’t as embroiled in vape culture.

Similarly, some women interviewed pointed out that the impression that vape shops were “masculine territories” made them less confident shopping in them. Three women actually had male partners or friends go to shops for them to avoid the off-putting nature of the spaces.

Benefit #3: supporting the individual vaper

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Finally, the paper says that the individual-level support offered by most vape shops is a huge advantage to smokers, and even to more experienced vapers. This includes helping new users find the right device for them, and explaining rules of thumb for choosing a suitable nicotine strength. Employees ask questions to help new users find the right sort of device for them, and tailor their advice and recommendations to how “tech savvy” the particular customer is.

This type of support is essential because many new users find the bewildering number of choices a little daunting. Overall, the shops did a great job on this front, although some vapers reported having negative experiences in shops where staff seemed more interested in making a sale than offering useful information.

When newer vapers are confused, local vape shops are valuable sources of advice.

One final point that really drives home the benefit of vape shops is the ongoing support they offer. One of the vapers in the study commented, “I’m very reliant on going to the shop and going, ‘help something has gone wrong.’ They’ll just tut and go ‘you just do this like.’ So I’ve got that reliance, I’ve almost got like a little help on hand.”

When newer vapers are confused, local vape shops are valuable sources of advice. The researchers even found examples of hardware problems being investigated for free by staff. This is something that websites really can’t compete with, and is absolutely invaluable to anybody feeling out of their depth with technology. One staff member mentioned that he’d even give people trying to switch advice to avoid relapsing to smoking when they’re out drinking.

How vape shops can help even more people

The study’s conclusion is that vape shops and their staff do appear to have a lot of potential to help more people quit smoking. Because of vaping, it’s been estimated that at least 20,000 people in the U.K. quit each year who wouldn’t have done so otherwise, and vape shops have the potential to increase that number substantially.

The paper identifies lots of positive points – with individual-level advice, ease of access, and social benefits all playing a role – and also a couple of areas for improvement. First, taking steps to make vape stores less intimidating for new vapers and women would be a big improvement, although there are stores that don’t have these issues.

The other major area for potential improvement would be shops deepening their relationships with local stop smoking services. Not only would this give services more confidence in educating smokers about vaping and recommending stores to them, it could also lead to vape stores having more knowledge about smoking cessation. In essence, the more stop smoking services understand what happens in vape shops, and the more vape shop employees understand the support stop smoking services offer, the more people are likely to be helped by both.

On the whole, the paper is a celebration of something that gets all-too-little attention: the generally helpful and informative staff in vape shops, and how empowering for smokers choosing to switch to vaping can be. It highlights that vape shops aren’t the enemy of traditional stop smoking services; in reality, they’re a vital new ally.

Lee Johnson
Lee is a writer and vaper from the UK. He quit smoking (without intending to) in 2012, and now spends his time writing about the conflict between science and ideology in the vaping debate. He's a firm believer that smokers deserve the facts on tobacco harm reduction without the fearmongering. He probably drinks too much tea.