There is general agreement that smoking is one of the worst things one can do for one’s health. But when it comes to alternatives like electronic cigarettes, the debate continues to divide stakeholders and policymakers.
A London-based psychologist told EURACTIV that taking nicotine in an alternative form is less harmful than smoking. But Dr Lynne Dawkins, an associate professor of psychology at London South Bank University, also admitted that vaping is not totally safe and needs further research.
Speaking on the sidelines of the Global Nicotine Forum in Warsaw in June, Dr Dawkins said that the disagreement among scientists is about “how much less harmful vaping is” compared to traditional smoking.
She added that another area where there is some disagreement is about how effective e-cigarettes are as a tool to quit smoking.
“I think over the years, the evidence is building to suggest that e-cigarettes are effective to help people quit smoking. And over time, we see more agreement in that area,” she said.
The debate over novel tobacco products, and particularly electronic cigarettes, has heated up in Europe, especially after the revision of the Tobacco Product Directive.
The industry claims that electronic cigarettes should be treated as a normal consumer good while the European Commission has adopted the so-called precautionary approach and says that “harm is harm”. The World Health Organisation is also strongly opposed to electronic cigarettes.
The EU executive has even compared electronic cigarettes to poison, triggering a strong reaction from the industry and some health professionals.
In an interview with EURACTIV, EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis said if one uses electronic cigarettes as a method to stop smoking, it has to be managed by medical doctors and specialists and should be sold in pharmacies, rather than in supermarkets.
“The industry proposes dangerous products and they use different loopholes in the directive. And they use different advocates to say they are less harmful,” he said.
An enemy of innovation?
Clive Bates, a former director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), said the EU was functioning as a “kind of enemy of innovation”.
“These new products, nicotine products that don’t involve smoke or disruptive technology, they’re able to replace smoking and pose a fraction of the risk to users,” he said.
Referring to the EU ban on snus, a moist powder tobacco product, he said that snus is the reason Sweden has the lowest smoking rate in the world.
“The EU actually bans snus and imposes arbitrary and pointless regulations on e-cigarettes which achieve nothing except harass users and in general has tended to stress minor threats over enormous opportunities.”
“That needs to change when we get to the next directive, they need to start embracing innovation, recognising that these products will be what finishes off the cigarette business,” he added.
For Bates, the danger is that if e-cigarettes are over-regulated on a precautionary basis, it makes it less attractive and harder for people to switch, so they carry on smoking.
“And what you’ve done on a precautionary basis turns out to cause more harm,” he said.
On the other hand, the World Health Organisation (WHO) fully opposes electronic cigarettes and urges governments to adopt the precautionary approach.
“The discussion about harm reduction and their argumentation is opportunistic as the scientific community is pretty much divided over the potential harm reduction these products could cause,” Dr Vera Luiza da Costa, the head of secretariat of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), told EURACTIV in March.
Asked about the long-term effects of electronic cigarettes, which are still unknown, Clive replied:
“It’s true that we don’t have a time machine and we can’t go forward 50 years and find out what will happen. However, it’s not as if we know nothing. We know a lot about what is in the vapour aerosols, we know about toxic exposure in the body and everyone’s convinced risks will be much, much lower.”
“The exposure is lower, the toxicity of vapour is much lower. From that, you can assume that the risks will be much lower over the longer term,” he said.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]