E-cigarettes need tight regulation, WHO says, citing health concerns

Growing popularity of 'vaping' alarms UN agency, which fears devices will serve as a 'gateway' to traditional tobacco use

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 August, 2014, 1:31am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 August, 2014, 1:47am

The World Health Organisation yesterday stepped up its war on Big Tobacco, calling for stiff regulation of electronic cigarettes as well as bans on their indoor use, advertising and sales to minors.

In a long-awaited report that will be debated by member states at a tobacco control meeting in October in Moscow, the United Nations health agency also voiced concern at the concentration of the US$3 billion market in the hands of transnational tobacco companies.

The devices, which have surged in popularity in particular among young people, function by heating flavoured nicotine liquid into a vapour that is inhaled - much like traditional cigarettes, but without the smoke.

"The existing evidence shows that [e-cigarette] aerosol is not 'merely vapour' as is often claimed in the marketing of these products," the WHO said.

Despite scant research on the health effects of "vaping", as use of the devices is called, the WHO said there was enough evidence "to caution children and adolescents, pregnant women, and women of reproductive age" about e-cigarette use, due to the "potential for fetal and adolescent nicotine exposure [having] long-term consequences for brain development".

It said retailers should be prohibited from selling e-cigarettes to minors, and called for the scrapping of vending machines. E-cigarettes also increase the exposure of bystanders and non-smokers to nicotine and other toxicants, it said. So far, users have been widely permitted to vape in places where traditional smoking is strictly off limits.

Sales have risen sharply since e-cigarettes were introduced in 2005. Since then, the sector has ballooned from a single manufacturer in China to an estimated US$3 billion global industry with 466 brands available in 62 countries, the WHO said. It voiced concern about the growing role of traditional tobacco companies in the once niche market.

Manufacturers maintain e-cigarettes are safe and claim they can help smokers quit traditional cigarettes. They often come without the regulation that has increasingly dogged the traditional cigarette industry, with some countries allowing advertising and the sale of e-cigarettes to minors.

In Hong Kong, e-cigarettes containing nicotine are considered pharmaceutical products and must be approved for sale by the Health Department.

While the WHO acknowledged the devices were "likely to be less toxic" for the smoker than conventional cigarettes, it said there was a lack of research backing up manufacturers' claims.

It warned of what it called the "renormalisation effect" of e-cigarettes: they can make smoking more attractive and "perpetuate the smoking epidemic".

"E-cigarettes have been marketed in almost 8,000 different flavours, and there is concern they will serve as a gateway to nicotine addiction and, ultimately, smoking, particularly for young people," it said. E-cigarette use had at least doubled among adults and teenagers from 2008 to 2012, the WHO said.

Of more concern perhaps was a warning from US health authorities on Monday that the number of young Americans who have tried e-cigarettes tripled from 2011 to 2013. With sales there expected to top US$2 billion this year, the American Heart Association also called for the devices to be regulated as regular cigarettes.

Reuters, Agence France-Presse