Is E-cigarette Smoking Safe?

Chhatra Karki, CNS Correspondent 
Tobacco companies all over the world are selling Electronic Cigarettes (E-Cigarettes) under the banner of 'safe smoking' in times when 5.4 million people die every year from tobacco related causes. Globally, various campaigns against smoking are on their feet while at the same time the increasing use of E-Cigarettes threatens to thwart all the commendable work done by tobacco control activists.

In one study, the use of E-Cigarettes has been found to be more in the developed countries than in the developing countries. Data says that in 2012 around USD 2 billion were used globally in the trade of E-Cigarettes out of which USD 500 million was used only in US. Another study has revealed that the rate of consumption of E-cigarettes in 2013 in US doubled to that of the last year. In 2011–2012, 1.78 million students of High School in US had been found using E-Cigarettes.

Dr Tara Singh Bam of the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union), laments that, “One tenth of the UK smokers now use E-cigarettes and their number has risen to 1.3 million in 2013- up from 700000 in 2012. Most of these EC users were current or former smokers and many feared that they would return to smoking tobacco if the products were banned.” It is not only in US or UK that consumers of E-Cigarettes have increased, but in many of the European countries too.

E-cigarette producing companies claim that it does not have an adverse effect on human health despite no extensive studies and/or analyses having been done on the effects of E-cigarettes. Mr Bill Bellew of The Union says, "The health impact of long time inhalation of E-cigarettes is of concern and needs to be fully investigated. Propylene glycol is found in them, which causes bad effect on the lungs. Some E-cigarettes have shown the presence of di ethylene glycol which has a history of mass poisonings and deaths. It took years to get the legislation passed for smoke free public places But with people vaping in such places with a no smoking sign behind, do these public places remain smoke free? There use is going to do collateral damage in terms of unravelling the gains of smoke free policies.”

Jyoti Baniya, Chairman of Consumer rights protection forum Nepal, states that E-Cigarettes are currently not used widely in a developing country like Nepal, although they are very much in fashion in developed countries. E-cigarettes can prove more dangerous than the conventional cigarettes and rigorous research must be done before using them.

Within 3-4 years of being invented and introduced in China in 2003, use of E-Cigarettes increased abundantly and continues to rise at an alarming pace. There has been much debate around the use of E-cigarettes and its effects on health as it contains propylene glycol, vegetable glycerine and also nicotine. Alongside the rise of the use of E-cigarettes, various countries have been expressing deep concern towards its ill effects. Brazil, Norway, and Singapore have banned its use citing the damages it causes to human health. The Food and Drug Agency, Indonesia has suggested to the government that as it is more injurious than the usual cigarette, its use has to be banned.

There has been some awareness in the SAARC countries too (like India, Nepal, and Bangladesh) that E-cigarettes can cause more health injuries than even the regular cigarettes. In the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control meeting in 2013, the partners of South-East countries opined that the use of E-cigarettes must be banned.

The experts opine that the E-Cigarette producers have enticed the consumers with attractive slogans and aggressive marketing, despite it being injurious to health. According to Dr. Ehsan Latif, Director, Department of Tobacco Control at The Union, "We have to learn from the past as social health conscious activists. In the 1960s the cigarette producers had claimed that their product does not harm human health which was later proved wrong. The same thing is being done by them through promoting E-cigarettes today. The scientific community must come together and research on this. We should have one voice on this issue like the one we have against cigarettes. Till we can prove without reasonable doubt that E-Cigarettes are safe, proper regulations need to be put in place regarding them—so that we do not go down the road from which there is either no turning back or a difficult turning back.”

The Union strongly supports the regulation of the manufacture, marketing and sale of E-cigarettes. Their preferred option is to regulate them as medicines. If regulation as medicines is not feasible, then, pending the availability of reliable evidence, it suggests considering a ban on their: advertising, promotion and sponsorship; promotion for tobacco cessation; display of in retail stores; sale to minors; use in public places, workplaces or on public transportation. The Union also wants the packaging and labelling of E-cigarettes to include a list of all ingredients, stipulate the quantity of nicotine and include appropriate warning labels.

Chhatra Karki, Citizen News Service - CNS
February 2014