Why British officials are endorsing e-cigarettes

British health officials are touting e-cigarettes to be a valuable tool in helping traditional smokers quit.

Neil Hall/Retuers
Electronic cigarette vapour flavours are displayed in a shop in London on Wednesday. Electronic cigarettes are around 95 percent less harmful than tobacco and should be promoted as a tool to help smokers quit, a study by an agency of Britain's Department of Health said on Wednesday.

Just as reports emerge of a new study deeming electronic cigarettes a gateway for teenagers to start conventional smoking, British officials have endorsed the product as a “game changer” for getting adult smokers to quit, reports the BBC.

An independent review has concluded that smoking e-cigarettes – or “vaping,” as it’s more colloquially known – is 95 percent less harmful than traditional smoking. The study was commissioned by Public Health England, the government agency that oversees England’s National Health Service.

Officials have said that the e-cigarettes could one day be licensed for medicinal purposes, such as other prescription items like nicotine patches and gum.

But reviewers say the licensing process is so obstructive that it serves as a barrier to the market, and won’t help bring down tobacco use:

Much of England’s strategy of tobacco harm reduction is predicated on the availability of medicinally licensed products that smokers want to use. Licensed ECs [electronic cigarettes] are yet to appear. A review of the MHRA EC licensing process therefore seems appropriate, including manufacturers’ costs, and potential impact.

Though small compared to the number of tobacco smokers in Britain (9 million), e-cigarette users are rising and total about 2.6 million.

One in 20 of the general adult population in Britain uses e-cigarettes, said health officials. These consumers are “almost exclusively smokers or ex-smokers.”

In the United States, electronic cigarettes have also gained popularity with teens. According to a study conducted by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, e-cigarette use among American middle and high school students tripled from 2013 to 2014. Some 30 percent of US teens who use e-cigarettes switch to combustible tobacco products within six months, according to a study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Peter Hajek, the psychologist at Queen Mary University, London, who contributed to the British review, suggested that statistics about the transition from e-cigarettes to tobacco says more about the users than the products.

“It just shows that people who are attracted to e-cigarettes are the same people who are attracted to smoking,” he told The Guardian. “People who drink white wine are more likely to try red wine than people who do not drink alcohol.”

Reviewers recommended that regulations “ensure optimal product safety but make sure EC are not regulated more strictly than cigarettes,” in a bid to boost competitiveness.

Not all experts are convinced, however. “We need to see a stronger regulatory framework that realizes any public health benefit they may have, but addresses significant concerns from medical professionals around the inconsistent quality of e-cigarettes,” Ram Moorthy, a representative of the British Medical Association, told the BBC.

Financial costs have also left the public divided. Simon Clark, director of the smokers group Forest, told The Guardian was skeptical that promoting the product would yield a higher number of users. “[It] ignores the fact that many people enjoy vaping in its own right and use e-cigs as a recreational not a medicinal product,” he said.

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