Experts have come out in force to reject the WHO’s recent criticism of e-cigarettes, pointing out the harms of their continued rejection of the emerging smoking aid.

Harmful misunderstandings

In a highly criticised move, the head of the World Health Organisation has branded e-cigarettes as ‘harmful’ as part of their recent report on new and emerging products.

The WHO have stated that better regulation is needed to prevent ‘re-normalising smoking behaviour’. However, experts have been quick to point out the WHO’s failure to understand the difference between tobacco addiction and nicotine addiction.

Professor John Britton explains;

"This report demonstrates that, sadly, the WHO still doesn't understand the fundamental difference between addiction to tobacco smoking, which kills millions of people every year, and addiction to nicotine, which doesn't.”

He goes on to say;

"The WHO is also evidently still content with the hypocrisy of adopting a position which recommends the use of medicinal nicotine products to treat addiction to smoking, but advocates prohibition of consumer nicotine products which do the same thing, but better.”

Numerous UK studies have found e-cigarettes to be substantially more effective at aiding in a successful quit attempt than prescription NRTs such as patches and gum. Additionally, Public Health England has long since found e-cigarettes to be 95% less harmful than smoking.

Not only is the WHO's stance on e-cigarettes misguided, but it is entirely irresponsible. As a globally respected health authority their guidance can go a long way to influencing the way governments approach healthcare. By repeatedly standing against e-cigarettes they are perpetuating the misconceptions regarding the harm of e-cigarettes relative to smoking.

Regulation for change

If an adult smoker is looking at e-cigarettes as a possible stop smoking aid, and sees a headline stating that the World Health Organisation has branded them ‘harmful’, this could quickly change their mind about vaping.

What this adult smoker doesn't know from this headline is that the WHO's opinion on e-cigarettes is based almost entirely on the idea that they could ‘hook children on nicotine’. Now this person may choose a less effective alternative, or continue to smoke, based on a recommendation that actually bears little to no relevance to their individual situation.

John Britton explains;

"The WHO is right that non-smokers, especially children, should be discouraged from using any nicotine product. But for the more than one billion tobacco smokers in the world, electronic nicotine delivery systems are part of the solution, not the problem."

The UK is an excellent example of how effective regulation can help us utilise e-cigarettes as a stop smoking tool, while minimising the risk to non-smokers and young people.

Studies have consistently found that regular e-cigarette use among young people is very low, and the young people using e-cigarettes regularly are almost all current or ex-smokers. Additionally, the use of e-cigarettes among adult never-smokers also remains consistently low. By strictly regulating e-cigarettes and e-liquids we have been able to embrace them for their intended purpose, and not as the latest ‘fad’.

While the WHO are right to encourage strict regulation, they need to recognise the benefits that e-cigarettes can have for adult smokers as an effective and accessible smoking alternative.

This requires understanding that there is a vast difference between smoking and vaping. A smoker is not only inhaling nicotine, but countless other harmful toxins that, for many, result in illness and ultimately death. Whereas, an e-cigarette is an alternative nicotine delivery device, without the harmful substances released upon combustion of tobacco. Nicotine alone, while addictive, is not associated with any of the severe health complications that smoking is, and the body's reaction to consuming nicotine is actually comparable to that of consuming caffeine.

Dr Derek Yach, president of the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, explains;

“The exceptional growth of next generation devices offers the WHO a real opportunity to tackle combustible consumption once and for all. Over 100 million ex-smokers use reduced-risk products and the WHO should be taking advantage of massive investment in the sector by encouraging governments to provide an incentivised regulatory framework to enable greater expansion.”

We continue to hope that the WHO re-evaluate their stance on e-cigarettes, with guidance on how to best regulate them to protect non-smokers and young people but also offer adult smokers the best chance at a successful quit attempt.