Scientists have urged regulators not to introduce restrictions on the use of electronic cigarettes, arguing that limiting the use of such products could cost millions of lives.
In a joint letter, 53 researchers and public health specialists from around the world call on the UN World Health Organisation (WHO) to “resist the urge to control and suppress e-cigarettes“.
They argue that the products – which simulate tobacco smoking by producing a nicotine vapour that resembles smoke – are an effective way for smokers to kick the habit.
“These products could be among the most significant health innovations of the 21st century – perhaps saving hundreds of millions of lives”, the letter reads.
“If regulators treat low-risk nicotine products as traditional tobacco products… they are improperly defining them as part of the problem. Regulators should avoid support for measures that could have the perverse effect of prolonging cigarette consumption.”
Speaking to Blue & Green Tomorrow, Hazel Cheeseman, policy and campaigns manager at the campaigning charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), agreed that the evidence suggests that e-cigarettes are a gateway out of smoking.
“However, that doesn’t mean that regulation isn’t important”, she said.
“Products should be regulated to ensure that users can have confidence in the products and to prevent advertising from being covertly used to promote smoking to the next generation.”
The WHO says it is still deciding on how it will advise governments to act.
Meanwhile, the British Medical Association (BMA) has called for the introduction of much stronger rules. It has asked for restrictions on the advertising and marketing of e-cigarettes and for a ban on their use in public.
Tobacco companies will be awaiting the final verdict with interest, as many see products such as e-cigarettes as a way to diversify.
In Burning Desire: The Seduction Of Smoking, an investigation by journalist Peter Taylor to be aired on BBC2 on Thursday night, British American Tobacco (BAT) executives talk about this rebranding.
“The future is about tobacco harm reduction. It’s about providing a range of alternative nicotine products for consumers”, Kingsley Wheaton, BAT director of corporate and regulatory affairs, said in the programme.
“We are indeed the problem. That is no reason for us not to be part of the solution.”
Tobacco companies have long been shunned by sustainable or responsible investors due to their health impacts and unscrupulous tactics in the developing world – including the alleged targeting of children.
But in a recent article for Blue & Green Investor, Richard Essex, an financial adviser with Grayside Ltd, suggested that mainstream investors are now also suspicious of tobacco’s long-term prospects as cigarette regulation is stepped up across developing markets.
“This indicates, perhaps, the start of the real decline in these unwanted commercial giants”, he said.
Some have raised concerns that new products such as e-cigarettes could allow big tobacco to detoxify its public image.
However, Cheeseman from ASH argued, “While companies continue to sell a product that kills half their customers there is an irreconcilable conflict of interest between the tobacco industry and public health.
“Companies that want to be taken seriously as part of the solution must quit the tobacco habit.”
Photo: Joseph Morris via Flickr