Image: Ben Richmond
The raging e-cigarette debate just took an interesting turn. In a letter to the World Health Organization, an independent group of 50 scientists and medical experts said that electronic cigarettes have the potential to save hundreds of millions of lives by preventing the diseases caused by smoking tobacco.
The scientists, representing 15 different countries, wrote an open letter to WHO director Margaret Chen warning the United Nations's public health arm not to crack down on vaping products. It calls e-cigs a "critical strategy" for preventing tobacco-related deaths and "among the most significant health innovations of the 21st Century—perhaps saving hundreds of millions of lives."
The letter was sent in reaction to a leaked document from a WHO meeting last year that suggested the group was planning to slap stringent, potentially industry-killing restrictions on e-cigarettes, Reuters first reported.
The documents called electronic nicotine delivery a "threat" to health efforts and suggested the international group is considering classifying liquid nicotine vaporizers as a tobacco product and regulating them as such under the WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a 10-year-old UN treaty legally bound in 178 countries—notably excluding the United States.
If that passes, vaping in those countries would fall under the same harsh restrictions slapped on regular cigs: strict advertising rules, bans in public spaces and indoors, a heavy tax, mandatory health warnings, etc.—even harsher restrictions than the controversial regulations recently proposed by the US Food and Drug Administration.
After getting wind of the WHO's leanings, dozens of scientists drafted the letter to warn that the rules would dissuade people from using e-cigs which would thwart the technology's potential benefit as a smoking cessation aid.
Anti-smoking tools are part of the solution, not the problem, the group says. Harshly regulating electronic cigarettes would discourage people from adopting the products, which in turn could jeopardize a major opportunity to fight against smoking. Demonizing e-cigs would be counterproductive, the scientists wrote.
It's a notable perspective, considering most of the backlash against vaping has come, perhaps ironically, from anti-smoking advocates. Without conclusive research into the health effects of e-cigs (the letter comes right on the heels of one study that found the electronic devices don't help smokers quit and another that found they do) public health advocates come down on both sides of the debate.
President of the American Vaping Association Greg Conley has told me that the US government health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control have an abstinence-only mindset when it comes to tobacco, and see no room for vaping in the effort to eradicate smoking.
But the FDA testified at a recent Congressional hearing that electronic cigs are less harmful than combustible smokes, and said the agency doesn't need all the research in order to go ahead and regulate the new technology.
Acting without all the facts when a potentially life-saving technology hangs on the line is irresponsible, say the signatories of the open letter. A heavy-handed law would ignore the nuance of the issue—namely, that e-cigs may be bad for you, but less bad than smoking butts, and that should be taken into account before regulations are passed.
"Policies should be evidence-based and proportionate to risk, and give due weight to the significant reductions in risk that are achieved when a smoker switches to a low risk nicotine product," says the letter.
For all the work that's been done to curb smoking, 1.3 billion of people still smoke. That's 1.3 billion people with the potential to quit. What's more, more people are picking up the habit all the time, especially in developing countries. We're not out of the woods yet.
E-cigs might be dangerous. They might not. They might be dangerous if completely unregulated, but have a positive effect in moderation and if used safely. We don't know for sure yet, and before the full story is understood, prematurely squashing the industry is a risk.
Though it’s clear which way authorities are leaning, nothing's set in stone yet. Like the FDA, the WHO is commissioning further research before finalizing the proposed e-cig restrictions, and will discuss regulations at an FCTC meeting on October in Moscow. You can read the full letter here.