The World Health Organisation (WHO) is currently holding its annual anti-tobacco jamboree in Delhi, where thousands of anti-smoking health officials, wonks and activists get together to think up new ways of stopping us from enjoying a cigarette. But in the abbreviation-heavy world of UN events, the seventh session of the Conference of the Parties (COP7) to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) seems to be FUBAR (ask someone who’s seen Saving Private Ryan).
A report on electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS, or e-cigs to normal people), prepared earlier this year for the Delhi event, has caused consternation among anti-tobacco types who believe in ‘harm reduction’. The WHO report claims that e-cigs contain numerous toxicants, sometimes in higher levels than cigarettes; that ‘the absolute impact from passive exposure to electronic-cigarette vapour has the potential to lead to adverse health effects’; and that ‘given the scarcity and low quality of scientific evidence, it cannot be determined whether ENDS may help most smokers to quit or prevent them from doing so’. It also suggests that non-smokers are taking up e-cigs in significant numbers, raising the possibility of ‘gateway’ effects – that is, that vaping may lead to smoking.
All of this flies in the face of both research and anecdotal evidence. A quick search of Twitter for hashtags like #ecigs and #vaping will soon reveal a positively evangelical enthusiasm for e-cigs among long-standing smokers who have found vaping to be a perfectly adequate and complete substitute for smoking cigarettes. Indeed, for the truly committed, the range of options in terms of kit and flavours of liquids has provided an opportunity to become a complete vaping anorak. These are the people for whom a 100-watt sub-ohm tank rocking a 0.2 ohm BTDC coil is likely to inspire excitement rather than bewilderment.
The claims the report makes about exposure to second-hand e-cig vapour are just ludicrous. Claims about the harm caused by ‘second-hand smoke’ have been routinely overblown by tobacco prohibitionists. But a vague mist, mostly containing the same stuff they use in smoke machines in theatres and pop concerts, really is no threat to anyone. When the WHO report talks about ‘toxicants’, it invariably leaves out the most important factor: the dose. Yes, e-cigs can produce substances that can be poisonous, but they do so in tiny quantities that are irrelevant to human health and only have some effect when tested in unrealistic scenarios.
As for ‘gateway effects’, all the evidence points in the opposite direction to that implied by the WHO report. Many smokers are quitting and cutting down on tobacco cigarettes thanks to e-cigs. Meanwhile, young people who would otherwise be inclined towards smoking are now often trying vaping, too. Many don’t bother with tobacco at all, or quickly realise that e-cigs are just much more convenient to use than cigarettes. There is vanishingly little evidence of e-cigs getting youngsters ‘hooked’ on nicotine and leading them to take up smoking where they wouldn’t have done so otherwise.