E-cigs better than patches, gum to help quit smoking, top scientists tell WHO

30 May 2014

Leading academics and public health experts have called on the UN's World Health Organization to accept electronic or 'e-cigarettes' as a method and refrain from criticising this increasingly popular method of getting an nicotine fix ahead of important international negotiations on their regulation later this year.

In a letter sent to Dr Margaret Chan, director general of WHO, 50 experts said that e-cigarettes 'could play a significant role' in driving down smoking and cigarette consumption.

Their sentiments have been backed up by MP Dr Sarah Wollaston, a former medical practitioner and member of the House of Commons health committee, who said she would like doctors to be able to recommend e-cigarettes for quitting smoking.

This comes ahead of negotiations later this year by WHO, which will be looking at differentiating between various tobacco products.

The letter, signed by academics across the world, says, ''We have known for years that people 'smoke for the nicotine, but die from the smoke': the vast majority of the death and disease attributable to tobacco arises from inhalation of tar particles and toxic gases drawn into the lungs.

This indirectly reflects on tobacco companies which lace their products with chemicals mainly to make the paper and tobacco burn faster, thereby prompting smokers to 'light another cigarette' faster than they would otherwise do.

''There are now rapid developments in nicotine-based products that can effectively substitute for cigarettes but with very low risks,'' the letter said.

''These tobacco harm reduction products [e-cigs] could play a significant role in meeting the 2025 UN non-communicable disease (NCD) objectives by driving down smoking prevalence and cigarette consumption.''

It continues, ''If regulators treat low-risk nicotine products as traditional tobacco products and seek to reduce their use without recognising their potential as low-risk alternatives to smoking, they are improperly defining them as part of the problem.''

Wollaston said she was supportive of e-cigarettes being prescribed by GPs as part of NHS smoking cessation programmes.

''As of next year the MHRA is going to be looking at regulating this as a medicine product and then it could be prescribed by the NHS. I think the important message perhaps for those who are wanting to stop smoking is that the evidence is that the best opportunity to stop smoking is to use an NHS stop-smoking clinic, really that is the best way for people to go if they really want to quit smoking, she said.

''But what I would personally like to see is for doctors and nurses within those clinics and the specialist advisers within those clinics to be able to have another tool in their armoury and I wouldn't like to see us cut off and have excessive controls on e-cigarettes,'' Wollaston added.

Nonetheless, she said that she supported a ban on those below 18-years to buy e-cigarettes.

A major study published last week claimed that using e-cigarettes as a tool to quit tobacco smoking was 60 per cent more effective than nicotine patches or gum, or using willpower alone.

In India of course, these findings are likely to find the ears of a deaf administration. Any study would show that tobacco companies are now focussed on developing economies where consumption is the highest. But it will be a long time before an Indian government allows the import of e-cigarettes, even as nastier tobacco products like beedies and gutka continue to be available freely and cheaply.

Some might well recall that India's President Pranab Mukherjee, when he was the union finance minister, always supported the beedi industry while doing nothing to promote safer tobacco products.

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