Top scientists petition WHO not to classify electronic cigarettes along with regular tobacco


By Dave Hawthorne

Posted Saturday, May 31, 2014 at 04:38pm EDT

Keywords: e-cigarettes, ecigarettes, electronic cigarettes, tobacco policy, WHO

More than 50 top scientists are warning WHO (World Health Organization) against classifying e-cigarettes as tobacco items. They argue that if this is done, it would derail a big opportunity to reduce diseases and deaths that result from smoking cigarettes. Previously, the WHO has indicated that it would consider applying similar limitations to all products that contain nicotine.

The more than 53 leading scientists drawn from Europe, America, Australia and Asia, in their open letter addressed to the Director General of World Health Organization Margaret Chan, point out that low-risk products such as e-cigarettes form part of solution in the war against smoking and that they are not the problem.

The scientists argue that these products may be among the best health innovations of this era given that they could save millions of lives. Therefore, the scientists write that these measures to suppress and control the use of these products must be resisted.

According to leaked documents from the WHO meeting held last November, the UN agency sees electronic cigarettes as a potential threat’. This is why it wants to classify them in the same group with regular tobacco under the FCTC (Framework Convention on Tobacco Control).

It is this that has alarmed medical experts as well as the people in the electronic cigarettes industry. There are 178 countries that are signatories to WHO and they have an obligation to implement the measures that the agency decrees. The US is the only notable non-signatory member.

Should electronic cigarettes be classified together with normal cigarettes, it would force member countries to take tough stance to restrict demand. This will include imposing higher taxes, introducing health warnings, curbing its use in public places and also banning it advertisement.

In the last two years, the use of e-cigarettes, known also as e-cigs, has surged with analysts estimating that the industry registered a global sale of $3 billion in 2013 alone. Electronic cigarettes use battery-powered cartridges that produce inhalable vapor laced with nicotine.

However, the devices are not without controversies. Given that they are relatively new, no long-term scientific proof of their safety exist. Critics label them as ‘gateway’ commodities to tobacco smoking and nicotine addiction. But the scientists who petitioned the WHO write that they are not aware any single credible evidence to support this conjecture. 

One of the signatories, University of Ottawa law professor and who works in the department of Tobacco control, David Sweanor, argues that the aim is to completely eliminate the use of cigarette. He says that technology offers an excellent chance to start doing that. According to him, electronic cigarettes remain the biggest ever breakthrough made in public health.

Sweanor and his fellow scientists refer to electronic cigarettes as ‘tobacco harmful reduction’. This is informed by the fact that over 1.3 billion people in the whole world that smoke could reduce health problems to their lives by consuming low-risk nicotine in a non-combustible form. This is because most of harmful effects from tobacco come about from the toxic gases and tar that are normally inhaled into the lungs.

Reacting to the letter, British Lung Foundation chief executive Penny Woods say that currently, it is still unclear as to the overall effect of electronic cigarettes. While she admits that they could hold the key to helping people quit smoking, its unregulated status could cause problems.

Most people use electronic cigarettes to quit smoking

At the moment, research overwhelmingly indicates that people who use e-cigarettes do so purely to quit smoking, according to Sweanor. He further adds that there is no substantial evidence to suggest that young people are using electronic cigarettes to start smoking.

Big players in the tobacco industry support scientists

Many tobacco companies that sought to downplay the reduction in traditional smoking chose to invest in e-cigarettes. In fact, all the traditional big boys in the traditional tobacco sector are actively in e-cigarettes industry. It is therefore unsurprising that they threw their weight behind scientists.

British American Tobacco’s director of corporate affairs Kingsley Wheaton said that by categorizing tobacco along e-cigarette products, it would make it more difficult for people to access a less risky alternative.

One of the organizers of the letter to WHO director general, Professor Gerry Stimson, speaking to Reuters, said that the position held by WHO was ‘bizarre’. He added that the stance taken by WHO towards e-cigarettes was way harsher compared to that taken by other regulators in United States and Europe.

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