Syed Mansur Hashim

Hazards related to smoking are an established fact. Tobacco companies now print on packs messages like “smoking kills”. In Thailand, a consumer buying a pack is confronted with horrible pictures of tobacco-induced problems people face. For years, institutions such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and governments have led campaigns to limit smoking. The results have been a mixed bag. Interestingly, an innovative product called the “e-cigarette” has emerged. Not out of the laboratories of pharmaceutical companies or the WHO, but by the private sector. They are branded as “very low risk alternatives to cigarettes, used by smokers as a pleasurable way of taking the relatively harmless recreational drug nicotine.”
They come in various sizes and colours. The device is rechargeable and electronic in nature. These devices produce water vapour instead of smoke, generated by burning tobacco in traditional cigarettes. Vapour, that is nicotine-flavoured but without the side-effects that ordinary cigarettes have, primarily from carbon-monoxide produced by combustion and the tar.
E-cigarettes produce a vapour that causes no “passive smoking” for others in the vicinity, i.e. the second-hand smoke emitted from a tobacco cigarette smoker, which invariably causes damage to health of other people nearby.
According to a study carried out jointly by Professor Gerry Stimson, Professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Clive Bates, former director of UK-based Action on Smoking and Health in 2013, “the market in the UK is growing rapidly: there are around 1.3million users and the growth rates exceeding 50% per annum. The uptake of electronic cigarettes has been a relatively quiet consumer led revolution.
There has been no public health input or encouragement, and no spending of health service resources. The growth in popularity has come about mainly by word of mouth and internet advertising…
There is a vibrant industry of perhaps 300 successful and emerging small and medium enterprises (SMEs) all over the UK either making and marketing products, or importing and reselling from manufacturers in the Far East. Larger players, including tobacco industry subsidiaries, are becoming involved and will bring technology, marketing and distribution reach. In the consumer base, there is a vibrant social media scene, on-line peer support and advice, and many passionate individuals prepared to give their time and advice to new users. There are poor products on the market, but they are being superseded by superior products through the normal processes of consumer choice and supplier innovation interacting in a competitive market.”
Given the rapid, yet hardly noticed rise of the e-cigarette, governments in developed countries are moving towards formulating a regulatory framework that would govern the production, quality standards and ultimately, sale of this new product.   
The bone of contention between regulators and enthusiasts is that European Parliament is set to brand the e-cigarette a medical product, which would mean doctors would have to prescribe the product as opposed to their being sold openly.
Proponents for e-cigarettes argue that “vaping” is a lifestyle decision and not a cure for smoking and hence should not be branded as a medicine; regulators contend that branding the e-cigarette under a category would make it mandatory for manufacturers to adhere to safety clauses, which are at present missing.
It is estimated that there are, at present, 7million e-cigarette users. Indeed across the Atlantic, the sale of “e-cigs” is set to treble in the United States. With such impressive sales figures, many analysts are already predicting that consumption of e-cigarettes could outstrip that of ordinary cigarettes in a decade.
The concern for proponents of e-cigarettes is spelt out well by The Economist magazine&’s coverage, when it states “Electric smokes compete with cigarettes yet do not in most places face the same restrictions, to say nothing of excise taxes. They compete with smoking-cessation products yet do not usually have to secure prior approval for products or make them to pharmaceutical standards. It they are required to do either, their price will rise, variety will fall and uptake by consumers, who are overwhelmingly smokers, will be cut.”
Whatever may be the position of government health authorities and other agencies like WHO and US&’s Food and Drug Administration, the lure of e-cigarettes on consumers is not lost upon the international tobacco industry at large.
As reported by Economist in its article ‘Kodak moment’, “Philip Morris International expects to market a device to heat rather than burn tobacco by 2017.
Next-generation products at British American Tobacco include a nicotine-inhaler, for which it hopes to get regulatory approval in Britain. Whichever way consumers and regulators jump, the tobacco giants intend, unlike Kodak, to have a product to peddle.”
Having a harmless alternative to the tobacco burning cigarette cannot be a bad thing for millions of smokers worldwide. Regulations are needed to control quality, but it is excessive regulations branding the e-cigarette as medicine would drive up costs that could kill the idea altogether.

The writer is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star/ ann