A World Health Organisation report into e-cigarettes was “misleading” and “alarmist” and threatens to deprive the public of the potential health benefits which could save millions of lives, a group of tobacco experts warns today.
In an article in the journal Addiction, the group of world leading tobacco experts argue that a recently published World Health Organization (WHO)-commissioned review of evidence on e-cigarettes contains “important errors, misinterpretations and misrepresentations”.
The WHO last week called for a ban on e-cigarettes in restaurants and workplaces, argued that they should not be marketed to young people or non-smokers and concluded that there was “insufficient evidence” to prove their benefit.
The report appeared to have been influenced by a WHO-commissioned Background Paper on E-cigarettes, which called for greater regulation of e-cigarettes.
But Professor Ann McNeill, lead author from the National Addiction Centre at King’s College London, says: “We were surprised by the negativity of the commissioned review, and found it misleading and not an accurate reflection of available evidence. E-cigarettes are new and we certainly don’t yet have all the answers as to their long-term health impact, but what we do know is that they are much safer than cigarettes, which kill over 6 million people a year worldwide.”
McNeill and colleagues challenged the WHO review’s suggestion that e-cigarette use by young people was a major problem and could be acting as a gateway to smoking arguing that in fact current use by non-smokers was extremely rare and youth smoking rates were declining.
Professor Peter Hajek, co-author from the Tobacco Dependence Research Unit at Queen Mary University of London, says: “There are currently two products competing for smokers’ custom. One, the conventional cigarette, endangers users and bystanders and recruits new customers from among non-smoking children who try it. The other, e-cigarette, is orders of magnitude safer, poses no risk to bystanders, and generates negligible rates of regular use among non-smoking children who try it. The WHO recommendations blur these differences and if followed, will cripple the competitiveness of e-cigarettes and help to maintain the market monopoly of conventional cigarettes.”
The experts criticised the review for giving the impression that that e-cigarettes made in harder to give up smoking when in fact the opposite is true, they said. They argued that e-cigarettes were not just less harmful than tobacco cigarettes but that the concentrations of toxins were mostly a tiny fraction of what is found in cigarette smoke.
They disagreed with the inference by the WHO that bystanders could inhale significant levels of toxins from from e-cigarette vapour arguing that the concentrations were too low to present a significant health risk.
Meanwhile, a separate study from researchers at University College London (UCL) concluded that tens of thousands of lives could be saved every year if all British smokers switched from cigarettes to e-cigarettes.
Researchers estimated that for every million smokers who switch from tobacco to electronic cigarettes, over 6,000 premature deaths would be prevented each year in the UK.
In an editorial published in the British Journal of General Practice, Professor Robert West and Dr Jamie Brown from UCL's Department of Epidemiology and Public Health argue that even though some toxins are present in the vapour from e-cigarettes the concentrations are “very low”.
They also tried to dispel comments about e-cigarettes “re-normalising” smoking and the products acting as a “gateway” to smoking.
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