Africa: Health Organisation Dismisses Claims That E-Cigarettes Are Safe

Photo: Pixabay
Electronic cigarette (file photo).

Electronic cigarettes and heated tobacco products are not helping to fight cancer, the World Health Organisation said on Friday, urging smokers and governments not to trust claims from cigarette manufacturers about their latest products.


The seventh 'WHO report on the global tobacco epidemic' said blocking the industry's interference was critical to cutting the harm from tobacco use.

"The tobacco industry has a long history of systemic, aggressive, sustained and well-resourced opposition to tobacco control measures," the report said. "While some strategies are public and others more covert...all have the goal of weakening tobacco control."

The report said tobacco giant Philip Morris International was trying to position itself as a responsible public health partner via its 'Unsmoke' campaign, which encourages people to "change to a better alternative".

The WHO said the campaign aimed to ensure tobacco remained socially acceptable, while confusing consumers with terms such as "smoke-free products", which may refer to products with toxic emissions and unknown short-term and long-term health effects. Philip Morris spokesman Ryan Sparrow said the WHO's message made it harder to provide safer options for people who cannot quit smoking. "There is no question that the best choice for smokers is to quit cigarettes and nicotine altogether. The reality is many people do not. We cannot turn our backs on them," he said. "Organisations like the World Health Organisation need to stop talking at smokers, and start listening."

The WHO report said the industry hoped to win respectability through manipulative messages, such as claiming their products were part of a "harm reduction" strategy, even though cigarettes still account for 97% of the global tobacco market.

Vinayak Prasad, programme manager of the WHO's tobacco control unit, said the development of new products was solely intended to expand the markets of tobacco firms.

"There is no difference between cigarettes and heated tobacco products, except that in terms of exposure: the exposure is less, and the smoke is not visible," he stated.

Electronic cigarettes, containing nicotine but not tobacco, were promoted as a way to quit smoking. But there was no evidence to justify the claim, and evidence from the United States showed they had increased the prevalence of young people smoking.

"So, it's also a gateway for young people," Prasad said. "The answer is, it needs to be regulated. The WHO has clear guidelines to get electronic cigarettes regulated. And if you are banning it, fine, but if you aren't banning it, don't let it (go) free in the market, because the young people are taking it up."

Reacting to the report, the Cancer Association of Namibia's chief executive officer, Rolf Hansen, said the organisation has in the past spoken against vaping and e-cigarettes, adding that refraining from smoking remains the best option.

He said CAN's position remains the same and WHO is highlighting what they have been saying all along.

In an earlier story published by The Namibian on e-cigarettes or vaping, Hansen pointed out that vaping can become addictive due to nicotine, even when dealing with tobacco-free odourless vaping associated with e-cigarettes.

"E-cigarette use by a parent might lead to inadvertent health risks to [the] offspring. E-cigarettes pose many safety concerns to children," warned Hansen, adding that it is worse when used in closed space and can be inhaled by children.

He also urged for a reform on Namibia's current Tobacco Control Act of 2010.

He said although the law focuses on tobacco products, it does not make provision for e-cigarettes/vaping directly, but this can be changed if an e-cigarette contains any form of tobacco product.

"The onus thus rests on the owner/management per venue to, by "right of admission", prohibit the use of e-cigarettes/vaping in their respective institutions," said Hansen, adding that other countries are already in the process of prohibiting the use of e-cigarettes.

Twenty-four-year-old Melinda Baron* said she used e-cigarettes for over a year due to the perception that they carry less harmful stuff and do not have the distasteful smell of conventional cigarettes.

She said she has since reverted to real cigarettes after failing to find the flavours of real smoking.

"I started using an e-cigarette as an alternative to smoking because the risks were lower than those from cigarettes, not because I thought they would eliminate the risks alltogether," said Baron.

She said even though WHO says the risks to cancer are just as high, she thinks comparing hookah, which uses actual wet tobacco, to a vaping or an e-pen is not proportional.

E-cigarettes and vapes use oils and waters diluted with sugars, fats, etc, to achieve the fluidity wanted for that specific product. "I think it would be worthwhile for the WHO to explore differences between these three types of heated smoking products, and tell us the real deal," said Baron.

Chairperson on parliamentary standing committee on gender equality, social development and Family affairs, Ida Hoffman, yesterday said vapes and e-cigarettes among other tobacco products are used because of easy accessibility.

She said things were different back in the day but now since independence, people are free to do whatever they want.

Health ministry's Benson Ntomwa said the Tobacco Act already regulates whatever type of tobacco that comes into the country, no matter the form it comes in. - Nampa-Reuters and Ndanki Kahiurika (The Namibian)

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