Despite claims of the unknown effects of e-cigarettes, a new study says they are at least better than the real thing for smokers.
According to the study released this week by Queen Mary University of London, e-cigarettes cut tobacco-related deaths, and current evidence doesn’t justify stricter regulations for them compared to regular cigarettes.
The e-cigarette was invented by a Chinese pharmacist in 2003 as an alternative to smoking. Instead of lighting up traditional tobacco-filled cigarettes, smokers use a battery-powered device to inhale nicotine in the form of a vapor.
The process known as "vaping" has been sold to consumers as a healthier alternative to regular cigarettes.
“The evidence we currently have is clear: e-cigarettes should be allowed to compete against conventional cigarettes in the marketplace,” said Professor Peter Hajek, who led this latest study.
Scientists with the Food and Drug Administration and American Cancer Society say there is currently no scientific evidence about the safety of e-cigarettes.
Across the U.S., poison control centers have seen a 161 percent increase in calls from people with concerns regarding electronic cigarettes, according to a Kosair Children's hospital report. In an investigation led by KNXV in Phoenix, Ariz., local fire officials say they have noticed an increase in the number of fires started by electronic cigarettes.
In initial lab tests, the FDA found detectable levels of carcinogens and toxic chemicals, including an ingredient used in antifreeze.
Earlier this year, E.W. Scripps Company reporters found a highly specialized lab –- one of the first in the country –- to test e-cigarettes. Scientist Prue Talbot and her researchers at University of California Riverside conducted recent tests and tested an e-cigarette bought from a San Diego, Calif. drugstore.
During the testing, the liquid that is heated and turns into a vapor is put inside a centrifuge and spun. The end product: a small metal pellet.
As more studies of vapor and its second-hand effects are conducted, more municipalities and states are considering bans. More than 40 states across the country do not currently include e-cigarettes in their smoke-free laws, according to research done by the American Lung Association.
Look at the map below or click here to see how different states categorize e-cigarettes and selling the devices to minors.
States shaded red have a law which uses tobacco industry definition for e-cigarettes. States shaded blue on the map have a law which uses e-cigarette or separate non-industry term/definition for them but does not include in "tobacco product" definition. The states shaded green on the map have a law which includes e-cigarettes as part of "tobacco products" definition. The states shaded white on the map have not passed a law yet.
“Health care professionals may advise smokers who are unwilling to cease nicotine use to switch to e-cigarettes,” Hajek said. “Smokers who have not managed to stop with current treatments may also benefit from switching to e-cigarettes.”
In the U.S. Congress gave the FDA authority to regulate cigarettes, cigarette tobacco and smokeless tobacco in 2009. Right now, the only law in place says manufacturers can't sell the devices to help you stop smoking.
In April, the FDA released proposed rules for regulating e-cigarettes and a few other tobacco products, like cigars and hookahs. Some of the proposed rules included the requirement of health warnings, manufacturer registration of products and ingredients and age limits for the purchase of the products. The public comment period for the proposed regulations ended in July.
According to this new study, regulatory decisions should be proportional and based on evidence. Regulations should also look at likely risks and benefits of the product.
In June, more than 50 scientists from around the world warned world health leaders not to classify e-cigarettes as tobacco products. In a letter sent to Dr. Margaret Chan, the Director General of the World Health Organization, the scientists argue classifying e-cigarettes as tobacco products would jeopardize the opportunity to eliminate the number of deaths caused by smoking.
The group of 53 scientists describes it as “tobacco harm reduction,” the idea being that the “1.3 billion people who currently smoke could do much less harm to their health if they consumed nicotine in low-risk, non-combustible form,” according to the letter.
The group of scientists also warned banning e-cigarette advertising is counterproductive.
“Controls on advertising to non-smokers and particularly young people are certainly justified, but a total ban would have many negative effects, including protection of the cigarette market and implicit support for tobacco companies,” according to the letter.
A recent study for the Journal of Pediatrics found that between 2011 and 2013 adolescent (ages 12 to 17) exposure to e-cigarette TV ads increased by more than 250 percent. In young adults, ages 18 to 24, exposure increased by more than 321 percent.
"It is very much like old-fashioned cigarette marketing, with the addition of all these high tech and kiddie things, like flavors," said Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine at the University of California.
The WHO estimates there could be up to 1 billion preventable tobacco-related premature deaths in the 21st century. One of the 2025 United Nations non-communicable disease objectives is to drive down smoking and cigarette use to help reduce the number of cardiovascular deaths around the world.
The American Cancer Society said e-cigarettes have not been approved by the FDA for use to quit smoking. Experts add that no evidence exists to show they even help people quit smoking.
This new study was published in the journal “Addiction” and partially funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The researchers reviewed more than 80 previous studies that had been done on the use and safety of e-cigarettes.
Follow Lynn Walsh on Twitter: @LWalsh.