CHENNAI: In 2013, Philip Morris International, the American tobacco giant, announced that it would start manufacturing e-cigarettes. The announcement stunned many observers. Why would the company invest $100 million in a new venture that could disrupt its own business?
Phillip Morris’ calculations proved right, however. The number of e-cigarette users has tripled in the UK since 2010, reaching 2.8 million. In the US, the figure is nearly 10 million.
What are e-cigarettes and why are they such an unlikely draw?
An e-cigarette is an electronic device that heats liquid nicotine until it becomes vapour, which is then inhaled by the user. It does not contain tobacco. The user inhales vapour instead of smoke. That’s why e-cigarette smoking is called vaping.
The product was invented by a Chinese pharmacist named Hon Lik in 2003. Since then, many health experts, including the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) in London suggested that e-cigarettes could be a gateway out of smoking. N RCP report said, “Among smokers, e-cigarette use is likely to lead to quit attempts that would not otherwise have happened.”
A 2015 study by the University College London and Cancer Research UK found that e-cigarettes “may have” helped 18,000 people in the UK quit smoking.
E-cigarettes deliver nicotine like a conventional cigarette but without the harmful effects of smoking tobacco.
A large number of e-cigarette users in the US and UK are ex-smokers who are trying to kick the habit. In fact, 53 per cent of the 2.1 million smokers who use e-cigarettes in the UK are ex-smokers. In the US, 22 per cent of ex-smokers use e-cigarettes.
However, there is no conclusive evidence to prove that e-cigarettes have a substantial impact as an anti-smoking aid.
Although e-cigarettes are promoted as a safer alternative to conventional cigarettes, their health effects are unclear. In fact, many agencies in the West have expressed concerns about their growing use.
The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has expressed concerns about their use by teens. “We know that the vapor from e-cigarettes is harmful because it contains harmful ingredients, including nicotine. Nicotine exposure during adolescence can cause addiction and can harm the developing brain,” a CDC report noted.
A Harvard University study noted that e-cigarette usage may induce nicotine addiction and increase the risk of addiction to other drugs.
Many researchers have expressed concerns about e-cigarettes acting as a potential gateway to conventional smoking.
A team of researchers at the University of Michigan found that teens who smoke e-cigarettes were more likely to develop smoking as a habit. The university conducted two surveys – one in 2014 and the other in 2015 – among 13,000 teens who vape but had never smoked. The latter survey revealed that 31per cent of the participants started smoking during the period between the two surveys.
Efforts to regulate e-cigarettes have made headway in some countries while in others lawmakers remain confused about the product and its impact. In April, the US House of Representatives killed a proposal by the Food and Drug Safety Administration to regulate e-cigarettes.
In contrast, UK’s Parliament voted to enforce some regulations on the manufacture and sale of e-cigarettes including restricting the dosage of nicotine to less than 20gm per ml and the size of its container. In the EU, the Tobacco Directive 2016 banned advertisement promotion and sponsorship of e-cigarettes.
In India, e-cigarettes are banned in Karnataka, Kerala, Punjab and Maharashtra.
In 2014, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare stated, “The use of smokeless tobacco has become a major public health menace, which, if not checked in time with strong measures, could become a national threat.”
One of the major concerns expressed was that use of e-cigarettes would lead to nicotine addiction. In India, the sale of nicotine is allowed only as an aid to de-addiction from tobacco, as per the Indian Drugs and Cosmetics Act 1940. In 2014 a man was arrested in Mohali under the Act for selling e-cigarettes.
The judge who sentenced him to three years in prison said, “E-cigarettes contain nicotine in the chemical form, which is highly addictive and potentially lethal. The youth take to such kind of addictive and potentially lethal products, and the offenders involved in promoting and selling such products should be dealt with sternly by law for the welfare of the society.”
However, unlike the EU or Britain, India has made no move towards regulating the product. E-cigarettes continue to be available online and at medical stores. The number of e-cigarette users in India is not known.