... But should we heed the no-smoke alarm?
Anyone following the 66th Cannes Film Festival this year may have noticed the presence of the latest gadget in the A-list star’s inventory: the electronic cigarette. Granted a high profile by media figures such as The Great Gatsby actor Leonardo DiCaprio, the “e-cig” is a fairly recent phenomenon that is rapidly gaining in popularity, with an estimated 500,000 regular users in France alone.
Marketed as a safer alternative to traditional tobacco, the electronic cigarette offers smokers the relief of a nicotine hit without the danger that comes from the tar and carbon monoxide present in a normal cigarette, while emitting no smoke, thus enabling users to “vape” in public places where smoking is not permitted. Any smoker who has endured a long-distance flight will understand the attraction – an attraction that has spawned a €400 million industry in the EU alone.
However, in June the e-cigarette faced its first major challenge in its ascendency, in the form of the French Health Minister Marisol Touraine, who stated publicly that “electric cigarettes are not a harmless product” and has put forward proposals to ban the use of e-cigs in public places. Moreover, in 2016 the e-cigarette may be reclassified as a medicinal product, meaning only pharmacists will have the right to sell it. Similar plans are being made in the EU, which have created uproar from users and within certain spheres of the medical community.
There seems to be three principal reasons for the proposals issued by the French government. Firstly, concerns about the long-term health effects of the e-cigs, which are currently unknown, due to the relatively short time these products have been on the market. On May 27th, 2013, the French Office for Tobacco Prevention published a report on the subject, stating, “We don’t know enough about these products.” And in the UK, Jeremy Mean of the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Products Agency (MHRA) said that their “safety and quality was not assured”.
Furthermore, there are many who are troubled about the lack of regulations imposed on these products, with a Food and Drugs Authority (FDA) spokesperson in the US describing the current regulatory situation as “the Wild Wild West”. Finally, from the EU there are worries that the e-cigs' resemblance to normal cigarettes and their widespread availability will a have a negative effect on the anti-smoking battle and may act as a gateway to tobacco use among young people.
However, as the report from the Office for Tobacco Prevention said, there is no actual evidence to suggest that e-cigarettes are health endangering. Critics are labelling the move by Touraine as an “excess of caution”, with potentially disastrous effects for the blossoming industry.
Others go further, and see the proposal as a deal with Big Tobacco and pharmaceutical companies. The electronic cigarette is well on the way to becoming the most popular choice of THR – tobacco harm reduction. Recent studies have demonstrated a 45% success rate amongst quitters who use the e-cigarette, compared to 8% when using either nicotine patches or gums. These products are commercialised entirely by pharmaceutical companies, and together they have created an estimated €117 million industry in the EU alone. With the ever-increasing popularity of the e-cigarette, this industry is suffering losses. Naturally the pharmaceutical companies wish to protect their own, and their enormous influence in the political sphere is certainly no secret.
Meanwhile the government has a huge vested financial interest in tobacco, free to dictate prices to a faithful clientele. The ever-increasing price-hikes on cigarettes has achieved little success in decreasing smoking levels in France, with 25% of the population describing themselves as habitual smokers, according to a government survey.
Those with a cynical mindset could paint a conceivable picture of a deal being struck between those who would profit most from restrictions on the use and sale of e-cigarettes, especially when the proposals come in the wake of a €10,000 lunch between members of British-American Tobacco and the French government, and the fact that three of the contributors to the report made by the Office for Tobacco Prevention have made it clear they have links to several pharmaceutical companies.
Then there is the view of the medical community, many of whom actively propose electronic cigarettes to their patients who wish to quit smoking. Jean-François Etter, a professor of public health at the University of Geneva described the e-cig as “an alternative that can save millions of lives” and the proposed ban as “disappointing declarations that work against public welfare.”
As mentioned, the success rate when using these products is phenomenal when compared with the alternatives, and with tobacco smoking responsible for 73,000 fatalities a year in France alone, any viable solution should be encouraged not restricted. In addition, the level of nicotine present in the electronic cigarette is considered to be as detrimental to the human body as a cup of coffee, according to an American medical study published last year. There is no way it could be said that these e-cigs have a positive effect on human health, but current estimates suggest that they are about 100 times better than tobacco cigarettes.
So why the ban? In any case the future of the electronic cigarette is far from assured. Not only will the ban in public places be a setback in terms of exposure, it will take away some of its attractions, such as being able to “smoke” in bars or pubs. The EU reclassification on the e-cig as a medicinal product also has far-reaching consequences, as the availability and advertising of the product will be curtailed and controlled. All this will have an effect on sales, and therefore ultimately on lives. There seems to be no proven reason to ban e-cigs, and there seems to be one major reason to encourage them: to do anything possible to prevent the deaths of millions who need these alternatives to switch to.
E-cigs go on trialLast year the Departmental Committee of Respiratory Diseases in the Dordogne, in collaboration with the Périgueux Health Examinations Centre, recruited 100 smokers who had no desire to quit but agreed to use electronic cigarettes for a period of three months.
Its report published December 5th, 2012, observed that of the 74 participants who followed protocol, 72% considerably reduced their cigarette smoking, while 11% stopped smoking.
“One cannot recognise that smoking is the first cause of avoidable deaths, yet not make any study of the electronic cigarette, which meets the approval of millions of users worried about their health,” said Dr Jacques Granger, President of the Dordogne Committee.
You can sign an online petition defending electronic cigarettes with the Independent Association of Users of Electronic Cigarette at www.aiduce.fr/petition/