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Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Safe e-cigarettes? Too good to be true

By Shin Young-soo (China Daily) Updated: 2013-06-26 06:51

They are known as electronic cigarettes or e-cigarettes, or called vaporizers or just vapes. They are electronic vaporization systems that turn a nicotine solution into a fine, heated mist. Users puff on them like a regular cigarette, and within a few seconds, the nicotine reaches the brain, giving them a "hit" of the stimulant.

First developed in China in 2004, e-cigarettes are rapidly gaining popularity. Manufacturers claim e-cigarettes are a safe alternative and an effective treatment for those trying to quit smoking. These claims are another smokescreen.

Inhalation is the quickest way to deliver highly addictive and harmful nicotine to the brain. Nicotine then causes, among other things, blood vessels to constrict, which can trigger a heart attack or a stroke. Unlike licensed forms of nicotine replacement therapy, nicotine inhaled through an e-cigarette is un-metered and its dosage uncontrolled.

What's more, that same vapor also may carry many other chemicals that manufacturers have not disclosed fully.

Studies show that to quit smoking people have to modify their behavior: they must break the habit of lighting up and puffing. E-cigarettes merely mimic the act of smoking, which makes it harder to change the behavior.

In consultation with international experts and regulators in 2010, the World Health Organization reviewed studies on e-cigarettes and concluded that there was insufficient scientific evidence to prove the safety, efficacy and quality of electronic cigarettes. That's why the WHO urges governments to regulate e-cigarettes. And it's now up to governments to take action before widespread marketing can undermine public health gains on smoking and nicotine.

E-cigarettes may make smoking look glamorous again. The notion of a non-toxic alternative to cigarettes may entice young people to consume a potentially dangerous, addictive nicotine product that can be a gateway to smoking tobacco cigarettes.

As the market for e-cigarettes grows, they are likely to become more affordable than regular cigarettes. That's probably why tobacco companies are investing heavily in e-cigarettes.

Recently, Altria Group, owner of Philip Morris USA that makes Marlboro, Virginia Slims and Benson & Hedges cigarettes, unveiled an e-cigarette. Last year, Lorillard Inc., which markets Old Gold and Kent in the US, acquired e-cigarette manufacturer Blu.

These are the same tobacco companies that for decades have denied that smoking causes cancer. They have used all manner of subterfuge to stymie measures to protect people from the harms of tobacco.

Now they say they are moving into what is supposedly a safe product line. A safe cigarette brought to you by Big Tobacco? That really is too good to be true.

The author is the World Health Organization regional director for the Western Pacific.

(China Daily 06/26/2013 page9)

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