Research shows smokers are ditching cigarettes for e-cigarettes in droves, as the debate over the safety of vaping rages on.

Nearly half a million tobacco smokers in Britain have switched to electronic cigarettes in the last year as they try to kick the habit, according to research.

Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) said there are now 2.6 million UK vapers, up from 2.1 million in 2014.

The campaign group said the figures showed the “value” of e-cigarettes in helping smokers give up tobacco but also warned of a “worrying” increase in people falsely believing they are as harmful as or even more dangerous, with 22% believing this compared to 15% last year.

ASH said analysis by researchers at King’s College London shows that e-cigarette use increased among ex-smokers from 4.5% in 2014 to 6.7% in 2015 but remained the same among current smokers at 17.6%.

Vaping remains extremely rare among people who have never smoked, with just 0.2% of users falling into this category over the last three years.

The most popular reason people gave for using e-cigarettes was to help them stop smoking completely (48%) and to prevent them from relapsing to smoking (38%).

Despite the rise in use of e-cigarettes, health experts have been at loggerheads over their potential risks and benefits.

Some fear they could be a gateway to tobacco smoking, while others argue they have the potential to help millions of smokers around the world to quit.

Recent research conducted in the US found that flavourings used in e-cigarettes contain potentially harmful high levels of chemicals, while a study of mice indicated that vaping may harm the lungs and immune system.

But Dr Leonie Brose, of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London, believes that vaping carries many benefits over traditional smoking.

“We must clearly communicate the relative safety of electronic cigarettes to smokers,” she said.

“The proven harm of tobacco is currently getting less coverage than the much smaller and far less certain harm from electronic cigarettes. We owe it to smokers to provide them with accurate information.”

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