E-cigarettes: safer alternative to tobacco or potential health risk?

E cigarettes are often presented as a solution for smokers who want to quit their deadly habit but struggle to overcome their nicotine addiction, but how safe are they? Should they be regulated as medication or as tobacco products? These issues are currently being considered as part of a review of the tobacco products directive. MEPs also debated it with experts during a workshop on 7 May.

The pros and cons of e cigarettes

E cigarettes are seen as a safer alternative to tobacco as althought they provide users with nicotine, the level of toxic substances in the vapour is much lower than in smoke from regular cigarettes.

However, not that much is known about them as there are no studies on the long term effects on people. They contain harmful substances and can lead to nicotine addition. Flavourings could also pose a health risk and e cigarettes could prove attractive to young people. Finally, they have never been proved completely safe.

Both the European Commission and the World Health Organisation propose that e cigarettes are regulated like pharmaceuticals but the industry prefers that they are regulated as tobacco products.

Need for best possible regulation

Linda McAvan, a British member of the S&D group, who is responsible for steering the revision of the tobacco products directive through Parliament, urged caution «I know that people have very strong feelings on this subject but we as MEPs are here to get the best possible regulation of these products, not to ban them.»

Peter Liese, a German member of the EPP group, added «E cigarettes are dangerous, especially when they are not properly manufactured, so we cannot just leave them unregulated.»

Benefit or burden?

Experts differed on the approach to e cigarettes during the workshop in the Parliament on 7 May. Roberto Bertolini, a representative of the World Health Organisation to the EU, said «There are no studies that can prove that there won’t be long term consequences.» Dr Charlotte Pisinger, a researcher at the Research Centre for Prevention and Health in Copenhagen, added «Let’s not repeat the errors of the past.»

However, Dr Jean Francois Etter, of the University of Geneva’s medicine faculty, stressed «E cigarettes are a lot safer than smoking real cigarettes and there is proof that e cigarettes help people to quit smoking.»

E-cigarettes to be regulated like tobacco by european commission, leaked documents say

The announcement was made by the Dutch Health Ministry and is based on findings by the Dutch National Institute for Public Health. The ministry s policy statement emphasized the lack of existing data concerning the health effects of e cigarettes. «There is insufficient scientific evidence to be able to say whether the quantities of toxins in the exhaled air are dangerous for bystanders,» Dutch deputy health minister, Martin Van Rijn, wrote in a letter to parliament on Thursday.

As part of a policy move to address the health threats of e cigarettes, Van Rijn stated in his letter that he will take measures in national legislation in regard to advertising, safety, quality, and labeling of e cigarettes. These measures will be imposed before any European health policy consensus about the matter is reached.

Reaching a Consensus About E cigarettes

Last May, experts gathered at the European Parliament in Brussels to discuss reaching a common economic and scientific policy regarding electronic cigarettes.

At the workshop, Dr Roberto Bertollini, Chief Scientist and World Health Organization representative to the European Union, observed the significant increase in sales of e cigarettes across Europe ever since their introduction to the market. He also mentioned that the current scientific evidence on the potential benefits as well as risks of these alternatives is inconclusive. In particular, he said, the long terms effects are unknown.

At the same meeting, the president of the European Respiratory Society, Francesco Blasi, added that the effects that e cigarettes have on the lungs remain unknown, as is the extent of nicotine uptake. But Charlotta Pisinger, a senior research fellow at the Research Center for Prevention and Health in Copenhagen, countered that our current knowledge about the health effects of e cigarettes is akin to our knowledge of regular cigarettes 100 years ago. She noted that an accumulation of small fragments of material has actually been detected in lungs after inhaling e cigarettes, which could eventually become a health concern.

But a representative of the German E cigarette User Association, Hans Christian Holy, highlighted the potential health benefits of e cigarettes by reducing the number of deaths from tobacco smoke. In this sense, he concluded, the opportunity to use e cigarettes to prevent harm shouldn t be overlooked.