Let us Give Serious Thought To E-cigarettes

Diana Wangari, CNS Correspomdent, Kenya
(First published in The Star, Kenya) 
When I was younger, back in those days when my biggest worry was if I would get home in time to watch cartoons, I underwent a 'stealing phase'. I call it a phase because we have all passed through it in one way or another. Whether it is coming home with a friend's pencil which was so pretty that it had to be yours or picking a few 'extra' coins from your mother's purse to buy sweets and in those days the economy wasn't what it was now, coins meant something, especially amongst six year olds who would consider you a billionaire for being able to buy them all lollipops. Those were the days.

But I digress. My stealing phase involved scooping some sugar from its container, placing it in a plastic cup and hiding it underneath my bed where I would retrieve it in the middle of the night after everyone else was fast asleep and lick away. Despite all my meticulous planning and my tiny undetectable footsteps, I somehow ended up getting caught.

But why do I tell this story of my formative years which no doubt we have all experienced in one way or the other? I eventually got over my phase and out of all my mother's reprimanding statements, there was one that stood out and is probably the reason why I did not get early onset diabetes. My mother told me, " Pumpkin (I would like to think that's what she meant by the then harsh term she used), there is no such thing as a 'little stealing'. If you steal sugar and another man steals a bicycle, the two of you aren't different. You are both thieves. You have to learn that, otherwise you will escalate to stealing bicycles."

Of course she did not phrase it in those exact words, but the message was clear; if it's bad, it is bad doesn't matter whether it is wrapped with a pretty bow on top. This story always comes to mind when I think of the marketing strategy behind E cigarettes claiming it isn't as bad as smoking a real cigarette.

Electronic cigarettes which vaporise liquid solutions giving the illusion of smoking are increasingly becoming popular as an alternative to actual cigarette smoking. The selling point being that they are less toxic as they do not contain tar but might contain liquid nicotine (nicotine is linked to life-threatening health hazards). Liquid nicotine is then heated in the delivery system to produce the vapour and hence the term 'vaping' has been coined in reference to its use. Although evidence is seriously disputed in scientific community, still e-cigarette industry is trying its best to link their products with tobacco cessation. If that doesn't sell it, the attractive designs will, from models that resemble tobacco cigarettes which come in different colours to those that resemble pens, one is easily spoilt for choice. And that's not all, they come in a variety of flavours from cherry to peach, you can indulge your senses.

It is no wonder that the fast rising e cigarettes are finding an eager market in the form of adventurous teenagers who are keen to follow the latest trends. As 17-year-old Paul, a high school student who has been using e cigarettes for an year now proves, "When my friends heard e cigarettes were available locally, we were excited. We had seen them online and they looked very cool. Here was a way for us to smoke without all the actual negative effects of smoking. Not to mention our parents would never find out, there would be no tale tell smell of tobacco."

What Paul and many others don't realise is that the presence of nicotine in itself can have harmful effects. The liquid in e cigarettes contains highly concentrated nicotine that if accidentally ingested could lead to nicotine poising, a phenomenon that was rare before the age of vaping. This being evidenced by a recently released report by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC). "This report raises another red flag about e cigarettes- the liquid nicotine used in e- cigarettes can be hazardous, " CDC Director Tom Frieden said in a press release. "Use of these products is skyrocketing and these poisonings will continue. E cigarette liquids as currently sold are a threat to small children because they are not required to be childproof and they come in candy and fruit flavours making it appealing to children."

That brings us to another key point, there aren't proper regulations as yet when it comes to e-cigarettes. This leaves room for not just false advertising but mislabeling, after all they are very few studies on the content, their percentage contribution and their effects. The irony is that tobacco cigarettes started much in the same way; smoking was the cool new thing, everyone had a pack but very few questioned it at the moment. Years later, lung cancer was knocking down our doors and heavy restrictions were imposed with accompanying thought provoking pictures of effects of smoking.

We do not have to wait for decades to pass

Am I saying that e cigarettes should be banned? No. All I am asking is for you to take the time to think. Think of the lack of evidence that has yet to be produced regarding the supposed advantages because sufficient studies haven't been carried out. Think of how there are no proper regulations in regards to manufacturing and in some countries such as our very own Kenya, distribution of electronic cigarettes.

Diana Wangari, Citizen News Service - CNS 
20 June 2014