FIVE Australians are among 53 doctors and policy experts urging the UN’s health agency to embrace the e-cigarette as a life-saving gadget ahead of World No Tobacco Day.
With tobacco smoke claiming a life every six seconds, the tar-free electronic alternative could help prevent much of the stroke, cancer and heart and lung disease caused by the toxins in traditional cigarettes, the experts wrote in an open letter to WHO chief Dr Margaret Chan.
In a declaration of interests attached to the letter, none of the signatories said they had received funding from tobacco companies. However, 22 have conducted research on e-cigarettes or consulted pharmaceutical companies that produce other smoking cessation products.
The Australian signatories declared no conflicts of interest.
They are Professor Ron Borland, a fellow at the School of Population Health at the University of Melbourne; Dr Coral Gartner, senior research fellow at the University of Queensland Centre for Clinical Research; Dr Nigel Gray, member of the Special Advisory Committee on Tobacco Regulation of the World Health Organization; Professor Wayne Hall, director of the Centre for Youth Substance Abuse Research at the University of Queensland; and Professor Richard Mattick, of the National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.
The letter said e-cigarettes “could be among the most significant health innovations of the 21st century, perhaps saving hundreds of millions of lives”.
They urged “courageous leadership” from the WHO in guiding global and national approaches to e-cigarettes, which are banned in some countries like Brazil and Singapore and face increasingly strict restrictions in other countries amid uncertainty about their long-term health effects.
The group fears the WHO plans to lump the battery-powered devices, which release nicotine in a vapour instead of smoke and contain fewer toxins, with traditional cigarettes under its tobacco control policy.
This would compel member countries to ban advertising and the use of the gadgets in public places, and to impose sin taxes.
“It would be unethical and harmful to inhibit the option to switch to tobacco harm-reduction products” like e-cigarettes, said the letter.
The WHO is working on recommendations for e-cigarette regulation, to be presented to a meeting of member governments in October.
But it does so in a scientific vacuum on the device’s long-term safety and its true value as an aid to kicking the tobacco habit.
Some fear its use and often unrestricted promotion could glamorise an addictive habit, and hook non-smoking teenagers on nicotine.
An estimated seven million people in Europe alone use e-cigarettes, which were invented in China in 2003.
Addiction specialist Gerry Stimson, an emeritus professor at University College London, who co-signed the letter to Dr Chan, said they have been shown to release “very, very fractional levels” of toxins compared to conventional ones.
“People smoke for the nicotine and die of the tar,” he said.
“If you separate the nicotine from the burning of vegetable matter… people can still use nicotine but they’re not going to die from smoking.”
If it listed e-cigarettes as a tobacco product, the WHO would “preserve the position of cigarettes because it makes it harder or more difficult or less desirable to use e-cigarettes,” he argued.
The WHO says tobacco kills nearly six million people a year.