Public health specialists and researchers have asked the World Health Organisation to "resist the urge to control and suppress e-cigarettes".
An open letter to the WHO has been signed by 53 researchers, including Robert West, professor of health psychology and director of tobacco studies at UCL, and others who have been involved in advising the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). They argue that products such as e-cigarettes ”could be among the most significant health innovations of the 21st Century - perhaps saving hundreds of millions of lives”.
The WHO has previously suggested that it views e-cigarettes in the same class as traditional tobacco products, but the authors of the letter argue that “regulators should avoid support for measures that could have the perverse effect of prolonging cigarette consumption. We are deeply concerned that the classification of these products as tobacco will do more harm than good”.
Speaking to the BBC, Prof West said e-cigarettes are "orders of magnitude safer" than tobacco cigarettes, saying that “we need to weigh up the benefits of fewer people smoking against the risk of electronic cigarettes leading to more people starting to smoke”.
Concern about risks
Others are less convinced about the value of these products. John Ashton, president of the UK’s Faculty of Public Health said his group has concerns about the potential risks, saying that “we need to weigh up the benefits of fewer people smoking against the risk of electronic cigarettes leading to more people starting to smoke, particularly children”.
He added that “most people start smoking when they under 16. That's why many public health experts are concerned that the advertising of electronic cigarettes could make it normal again to think smoking is glamorous, when it is anything but”. Prof Ashton went on to say that “it's too early to know if the reduction in harm…is greater than their potential risks” and “while we don't want to undermine efforts to help people quit smoking…what we really need is for electronic cigarettes to be subject to the same controls as tobacco”, so they cannot be marketed or advertised.
Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said that “the overall impact of e-cigarette use on public health is currently unclear. While they could prove to be an important tool to help people stop smoking, the unregulated status…is problematic”. She added that “until we have more substantial research we would encourage all smokers who wish to quit smoking to use ‘stop smoking’ services and approved nicotine replacement products”.