Smoking tobacco sends perhaps half of its long-term addicts to an early grave, and inflicts chronic diseases on many of the rest. The filthy habit is on the wane in rich countries,though it is still worryingly popular with many of the young.
Electronic cigarettes look like a promising substitute:
Electronic cigarettes look like a promising substitute: power from a small battery vaporizes a solution containing purified nicotine, delivering the hit that smokers crave without the toxins in tobacco smoke. So you might imagine that the increasing demand for e-cigarettes would be welcomed, and encouraged.
Not at the European Parliament. On October 8th it is due to vote on a new tobacco-control directive. Its intent is to cut smoking and keep children from taking it up (see page 60). But one of its main provisions would have the opposite effect. It would treat e-cigarettes like medicines, which includes requiring their makers to seek approval from the agencies that regulate pharmaceuticals when they bring a new product to market. This would greatly reduce the range of products available and increase their price. Even the European Commission, which first proposed the approach, admits that this is likely to slow the uptake of e-cigarettes. A vote for more curbs in Europe will also surely send a signal to America’s Food and Drug Administration, which is contemplating its own regulations.
E-cigarettes are not entirely risk-free. Little research has yet been done about their long-term health effects. However the research that has been done shows great promise. Nicotine is, in implausibly large doses, a poison. Even in small ones it is addictive; and the amount of the chemical dispensed by Electronic cigarettes varies from one brand to another. But it is already clear that whatever health risks may emerge in studies of e-cigarette use, they are vastly less lethal than traditional smokes.
Given the prospect of weaning the world’s billion or so smokers onto something much less harmful, as well as protecting children and others from second-hand smoke, there is a more sensible approach. Europe should tighten the existing rules on labelling and quality control that affect e-cigarettes. America should also increase oversight. Governments should then invest in rigorous testing and see how the product evolves. For e-cigarettes are changing rapidly in response to consumer demand. In America around 300m of them will be sold this year, three times the figure in 2012.
This seems to worry pharmaceutical firms, which in Europe are lobbying for curbs on e-cigarettes, a competitor to their nicotine patches and other quitting aids. Big tobacco firms are working on e-cigarettes of their own, as well as cigarettes that heat rather than burn the tobacco. But they have an interest in slowing the switch to smokeless smokes. If the innovative smaller firms that make most e-cigarettes have to seek a license every time they want to offer a new flavor or strength, the move towards safer nicotine consumption will be slowed.
But as far as adults are concerned, they should be subject to less regulation than alcohol (which is far more harmful) and perhaps to no more than caffeine, another addictive and mildly poisonous substance whose widespread use governments see no need to curb.
So far it seems that most regular “vapers” of Electronic cigarettes are smokers or ex-smokers. But over time the prospect of a relatively harm-free nicotine kick could draw in many new users. This risk, and the lack of long-term research on the residual risks of nicotine, argue for restricting the sales of e-cigarettes to children. But as far as adults are concerned, Electronic cigarettes should be subject to less regulation than alcohol (which is far more harmful) and perhaps to no more than caffeine, another addictive and mildly poisonous substance whose widespread use governments see no need to curb. The risk of getting more people addicted to something relatively harmless is well worth taking, given the opportunity for curbing dramatically the world’s single-most-harmful voluntary activity. Politicians should stand back and let millions of Electronic cigarettes bloom.