We Americans tend to get suspicious of people enjoying themselves too much, especially if it involves some kind of physical crutch. Smoking was condemned as a vice even before the incontrovertible evidence of how bad it is for you. But now electronic cigarettes have been invented, little battery-operated devices that look like a cigarette but involve no burning of any tobacco, just dispensing a nicotine-laced water vapor to breathe in.
But even though there have been no studies proving them harmful, the anti-smoking forces, not content with their victory over tobacco, are trying to put restrictions on electronic cigarettes also. In Europe, on the other hand, the medical profession is lauding the devices as “infinitely less dangerous” than tobacco and far more effective than nicotine patches in helping people stop smoking.
What follows is a study in the contrast between two cultures.
A ban on selling electronic cigarettes to minors goes into effect in Illinois on Jan. 1, but that may not be the end of attempts to regulate the product.
Public health advocacy groups say they are considering whether to ask lawmakers to change state law to include e-cigarettes in the Illinois Smoke-Free Act —even though the battery-powered nicotine sticks emit a water vapor and not smoke.
“We’re certainly considering that,” said Kathy Drea, vice president of advocacy at the American Lung Association of Upper Midwest.
The 2008 statewide smoking ban applies to cigarettes, cigars, pipes, hookahs and other lit materials. Some municipalities, colleges and the U.S. Department of Transportation have lumped e-cigarettes in with traditional smoking materials in rules and laws governing smoking.
The groups, however, say they are being cautious about moving forward in the legislature.
“We want them (e-cigarettes) included, but we are always fearful of opening up the law because then it is vulnerable to amendments that weaken the law,” said Heather Eagleton, director of public policy for the American Cancer Society.
The Illinois Department of Public Health is on the sidelines, waiting for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to weigh in on e-cigarettes.
“Because there have been no real studies to indicate adverse health effects, to the user or to those around the user, the department is awaiting a decision by the FDA later this year on how e-cigarettes are to be regulated, before deciding on a course of action,” noted Public Health spokeswoman Melaney Arnold.
A group of top French medical professionals on Sunday signed a letter voicing their support for electronic cigarettes, while warning the European parliament against re-classifying the smoking substitute as a medical product.
They say that e-cigarettes – a growing industry in France where there are an estimated 1.5 million “vapers” (people who use the devices) – are far less harmful than tobacco cigarettes, even if the long-term health effects have yet to be fully established.
They argue that a possible move by the EU Parliament to re-classify them as medical products (making the liquids used in e-cigarettes only available in pharmacies) would raise prices, hamstring the industry and keep smokers from making the switch away from tobacco.
‘Infinitely less’ dangers
In an unprecedented move, the French doctors wrote: “As medical professionals, we see patients every day who are victims of smoking. It is one of the most serious medical problems in France today.
“At the same time, we have noted the development of electronic cigarettes, which have helped a huge number of people stop smoking tobacco.”
The doctors include experts in tobacco addiction, cardiology, angiology, cancer, urology, neurology, foetal pathology, as well France’s senior ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist.
“We recommend continued research into the improvement of e-liquids so that an even greater number of smokers can stop using tobacco,” they continued, adding that e-cigarettes were “infinitely less” dangerous than inhaling smoke from burning tobacco, which includes carbon monoxide and carcinogenic tars.
The safety of electronic cigarettes remains a hotly debated issue, however, and the World Health Organisation has warned that “the potential risks they pose for the health of users remain undetermined” while the devices’ safety “has not been scientifically demonstrated”.
Research published in British medical journal The Lancet in September, quoting from a New Zealand study, called them more effective than nicotine patches in helping smokers quit.
But the study also warned that “more research is urgently needed to clearly establish their overall benefits and harms at both individual and population levels”.
What’s your take on electronic cigarettes? Just another disgusting habit? Or something with the benefits of smoking (whatever they are) without the bad effects? Does the second hand vapor annoy bystanders? I’d like to hear from any of you who have tried the things: how are they?