E-cigarettes (e-cigs for short) are marketed as a safer alternative to tobacco smoking, and an effective method of getting people to quit smoking. A major PR problem is that the devices are already a $3-billion market dominated by traditional tobacco companies. That has fuelled suspicions that e-cigs are yet another ruse by the tobacco industry to continue making massive profits from addictive products that are harmful to health. Added to that are safety concerns around toxic chemicals in the vapour e-cigs produce, and marketing to youngsters that could normalise smoking behaviour.
In the US, the Food and Drug Administration, has proposed regulations to ban e-cig sales to minors, prohibit free samples, require agency review to stay on the market and mandate nicotine addiction warnings. Former South African Dr Derek Yach, who heads the Discovery Vitality Institute in New York, believes thats overkill. Yach, a former World Health Organisation executive, has first-hand experience of the machinations of tobacco companies, but says e-cigs are a welcome innovation and health risks have been exaggerated. To mitigate risks, he says, health officials should simply encourage good e-cig companies the ones who commit to safety, to avoiding youth marketing, and to making smoking obsolete. Here, Yach gives his reasoning. [Marika Sboros]
By Derek Yach*
In the 1970s, a group of students in South Africa were planning a campaign against tobacco. I was one of them. We paid a visit to Rembrandt, the countrys leading cigarette manufacturer, to hear their side of the story.
They showed us shiny floors, introduced us to well-paid employees of all races a rarity in apartheid South Africa and proudly described their extensive support for the arts, culture and the environment. We replied that this was great, but it failed to address the core issue: their products killed half their regular users and harmed many more.
So the campaign went ahead. For me, it was the start of decades of battles with tobacco companies that led to strong regulations in South Africa and culminated in the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, now in effect in almost 180 countries.
Along the way, I learnt to distrust every move by tobacco companies and felt fully justified when an inquiry, supported by WHO and the World Bank, declared: Evidence reveals that tobacco companies have operated for many years with the deliberate purpose of subverting the efforts of WHO to control tobacco use. The attempted subversion has been elaborate, well financed, and usually invisible.
Its not surprising that most people in public health strongly endorse the view of Dr Neil Schluger, a lung specialist and professor of medicine at Columbia University, that if there ever was an industry that does not deserve the benefit of the doubt when it comes to protecting or promoting the publics health, it is the tobacco industry.
The industrys deceptions have included the development of low-tar products and a crafty message suggesting that they did less harm. Years after their launch, however, research showed that low-tar cigarettes had exactly the opposite effect.
*Derek Yach is executive director of the Vitality Institute and previously headed tobacco control at the WHO.
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This article first appeared in The Spectator Health magazine and is republished with permission.