Fifty-three world leading scientists have written to UN World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Margaret Chan urging her not to classify e-cigarettes as tobacco products. In an open letter to the WHO, the scientists warn the health agency not to stub out electronic cigarettes. They argue that doing so would jeopardize a major opportunity to slash disease and deaths caused by smoking. The scientists say that e-cigarettes are "part of the solution" to worldwide tobacco addiction. According to a Reuters article on the subject, the letter went on to say:
"These products could be among the most significant health innovations of the 21st century — perhaps saving hundreds of millions of lives. The urge to control and suppress them as tobacco products should be resisted."
This panel of scientists also added, "Policies should be evidence-based and proportionate to risk, and give due weight to the significant reductions in risk that are achieved when a smoker switches to a low risk nicotine product." However, there have been leaked documents indicating that the WHO views e-cigs as a threat to global health and wants them classified as tobacco products under the FCTC (Framework Convention on Tobacco Control). 178 countries are party to the FCTC agreement, which obliges them to implement its restrictions on tobacco products, and regulation could threaten the growth of the electronic cigarette industry. Large Tobacco companies are backing the scientists, insisting the devices provide smokers a less risky alternative. Major cigarette companies, of course, see e-cigarettes as both a major potential competitor and the future of the industry.
The background to all of this is that science, in general, does not fully understand the potential health effects of e-cigarettes or the e-liquid that is vaped in these devices. Recent studies have yielded conflicting results concerning the health impact of these devices.
According to one recent study performed by UCSF’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education which examined the results of several other studies performed by other scientists, "smokers who used e-cigarettes were less likely to quit smoking than smokers who did not use e-cigarettes." Upon closer examination, however, the UCSF study text acknowledges that the studies on which it bases this conclusion were not actually intended to measure the effectiveness of e-cigs in helping smokers quit, saying "Because these studies did not measure whether people were using e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation aid or other reasons for use such as to circumvent smoke-free laws, they did not directly test the efficacy of e-cigarettes as smoking cessation aids."
On the other hand, a University College London study published in the Journal Addiction surveyed 5,863 smokers over five years who were attempting to quit smoking and found that those who used e-cigarette devices as a quitting aid were 60% more likely than those who used other over-the-counter solutions to quit. The results found that 20% of e-cigarette users were no longer using traditional cigarettes, compared with 8% of users who used other products and 17% who used no smoking cessation aid at all.
There is a growing sentiment in the scientific community that the potential health benefits of e-cigs far outweigh the harms, and it does not appear likely that regulating these devices as harshly as tobacco products would be beneficial to society. Michael B. Siegel, a community health sciences professor at Boston University who specializes in tobacco control, sums up this sentiment in a Boston Globe article, saying "There simply is no product on the market that's more dangerous than tobacco cigarettes, and nobody in their right mind would argue that cigarette smoking is less hazardous or even equally hazardous to vaping."
According to an article in The Week, the WHO claims that the safety of electronic cigarettes is "illusive" and that the effects of e-cigs on the human body are impossible to determine because "the chemicals used in electronic cigarettes have not been fully disclosed, and there are no adequate data on their emissions."
"This really is the future of tobacco smoking. Few would claim that e-cigarettes are as dangerous as real cigarettes, but the data is still out on whether they really are the panacea the e-cigarette industry claims they are. And regulation may be coming, or be quashed, before scientists adequately understand their effects."