In a sign of how much the world wants to end the habit for nicotine, 179 countries have joined a 2005 treaty that restricts tobacco use. Now this October, when they meet in Moscow, these nations may take a further step and agree to ban the use of electronic cigarettes indoors as well as sales to children.
The two steps were recommended Tuesday by the World Health Organization (WHO) in a comprehensive study of what the agency calls “electronic nicotine delivery systems,” or ENDS. The use of the name “e-cigarettes,” says the United Nations body, only adds to the allure of a device that provides a heated vapor of toxicants, including nicotine, directly to the user but also to bystanders.
The evidence on whether ENDS actually help smokers quit tobacco is still not clear, the WHO concludes. Nor is there independent evidence about the health risks. Yet the industry is booming as Big Tobacco has put its marketing muscle behind the product. Last year’s sales were estimated to be $3 billion, up from only $20 million in 2008. And the market may grow 17 times by 2030.
Such growth does not suggest ENDS are seen by most users or the industry as a medical device for quitting regular smoking.
The WHO worries the devices may be a “gateway” to smoking and set back progress in preventing tobacco use, especially if the industry continues to target children. A clear sign of such targeting: The products come in thousands of flavors, from candy to alcoholic drinks. The agency also says their use might erode public support for smoke-free zones.
About half the world’s population now live in countries that already regulate the products to some degree. When the treaty nations meet this fall, they should take a strong stand to help people choose to be free of an addiction to nicotine. The best starting point is to protect nonsmoking bystanders and children.