The safety of electronic cigarettes is a divisive issue amongst tobacco control advocates, and new reports have reignited the debate.
Experts can’t agree on whether e-cigs are useful tools to help smokers quit, or if they’re simply a high-tech form that’s no better than what they’re supposed to replace.
The reason for such discord is because there’s simply not enough research on e-cigs to know the benefits or their risks of consuming nicotine in a vapor instead of through tobacco smoke. To make the situation trickier, it could take years to discover whether or not e-cigs cause cancer or other deadly diseases.
Because of this very lack of certainty, the World Health Organization advises in a new report that people need more protection — not less. Considering how the use of electronic cigarettes has grown exponentially over the last few years, with sales growing from 2008’s 50,000 to to 2012’s 3.5 million, the organization’s report could not have come sooner.
E-cigs’ vapors “pose a serious health threat to adolescents and fetuses,” says the report, “and increase exposure of nonsmokers and bystanders to nicotine and a number of toxicants.”
The report even questions whether e-cigarettes can really help people quit smoking, which is one of the device’s major selling points. The WHO found that no such claim has ever been systematically tested. Though e-cigs are probably less toxic for smokers who switch over, the report says that “the amount of risk reduction, however, is presently unknown.”
The WHO goes so far as to suggest a ban on the advertisement of e-cigarettes to reduce the risk to teens and children, and ban on e-cigarette usage in public spaces to reduce the risk to those who may inhale nicotine vapor secondhand.
A week after the WHO’s report, though, an editorial published British Journal of General Practice says that electronic cigarettes could save 6,000 lives per year for every million smokers.
“Given that smokers smoke primarily for the nicotine but die primarily from the tar, one might imagine that e-cigarettes would be welcomed as a means to prevent much of the death and suffering caused by cigarettes,” says the editorial.
Of course, the only way to really settle the debate once and for all is to conduct more scientific studies on the effects of consuming nicotine in vapor form.