Of all the harmful things that people do to themselves, few bad habits have ever been fought against as much as smoking. What was once a widespread habit endorsed by your dentist and doctor has now become a shameful sin that must be pushed out of sight, exiled from the home, workplace and bar alike, and kept well out of sight of children. Ever since doctors in the 1950s established the link between smoking and cancer, the tobacco companies have been fighting a losing battle against public health advocates keen to make smoking, and the health problems associated with it, a thing of the past.
However, the most recent development in the war on tobacco hasn't come from the doctors or the healthy living, but from the e-cigarette. E-cigarettes only became commercially available in the last decade, but they've been rapidly growing in popularity ever since. The advantage of the e-cigarette is obvious: it doesn’t have any tobacco, meaning that smokers get the nicotine fix they crave without exposing their lungs to the dangerous chemicals of burning tobacco. The other obvious benefit is that being smoke free, e-cigarette users, or “vapers” as they are now calling themselves, aren't exiled to the pavement or stairwell like their tobacco-burning brethren. The popularity of e-cigarettes is such that tobacco companies are now trying to get in on the act themselves.
A recent one-day conference at the Royal Society in London came to the conclusion that e-cigarettes could save millions of lives if they were adopted by smokers in widespread numbers. Experts believe that the quantity of toxic chemicals in e-cigarette vapor is between nine and 450 times lower than that of normal cigarette smoke; meaning that e-cigarette vapor is not only better for the smokers themselves, but also for bystanders who would otherwise be inhaling second hand smoke.
One problem with e-cigarettes, however, is that they are unregulated. Ever since the landmark battles between tobacco companies and cancer sufferers during the last several decades, few industries are as tightly regulated as the tobacco one. By contrast, e-cigarettes don't fall under the purview of groups like the Food and Drug Administration, although the FDA does claim to be “observing” the situation. Some consumer and health advocates say that when it comes to e-cigarettes, more credible research is needed, including long-term studies and a definitive answer as to how toxic an e-cigarette is in comparison with a normal cigarette – the statistic of “nine to 450 times less toxic” just won’t do.
Indeed, the e-cigarette has only been on the market for a few years, meaning that the long-term effects of the product are completely unknown. The link between tobacco use and cancer went unreported for years, a fact that has made many health experts hesitant to endorse e-cigarettes. In October, the European Union Parliament rejected a measure to regulate e-cigarettes as medicine; a move that demonstrates the EU’s interest in toughening e-cigarette production and distribution.
In the United Kingdom, however, some researchers have said that e-cigarettes could be useful in reducing addiction to traditional cigarettes. During the recent Royal Society E-Cigarette Summit, health psychology professor Robert West told attendees that e-cigarettes could save millions of lives. It is estimated that around 5 million deaths occur every year around the world due to cigarette use; if some of these smokers could reduce their tobacco consumption through the use of e-cigarettes, fatality rates would indeed fall.
Proponents of e-cigarettes say that the product should be regulated as a medicinal item, similar to the nicotine patch. A recent study conducted by the University of Auckland in New Zealand found that e-cigarettes are as effective as nicotine patches at helping traditional smokers reduce their cigarette consumption. The study also found that participants were more enthusiastic about using e-cigarettes than about wearing a nicotine patch, leading some researchers to conclude that e-cigarettes could even be more effective than patches at helping smokers quit.
Because of the potential benefits of e-cigarettes, some medical professionals warn that the product should not be too heavily regulated. A tobacco researcher and doctor, Jacques Le Houezec called e-cigarettes a “revolution” in one interview with the BBC. Dr. Le Houezec explained that if e-cigarettes remain less regulated than traditional cigarettes, teens might be more likely to experiment with the electronic variety of the nicotine product, which would be better for the adolescents’ health in the long run.
But although the U.K. is planning to license e-cigarettes as a medical product beginning in 2016, resistance from the Parliament of the European Union could impede that scheme. And despite the e-cigarette benefits listed by advocates of the product, the World Health Organization still advises people not to use e-cigarettes until their safety has been definitively proven.
In the meantime, e-cigarette use is likely to continue, and both lawmakers and product regulators are left with the burden of determining whether this relatively untested and un-researched product is perfectly safe and perhaps even life-saving, or much more dangerous than users and advocates realize.