WHO Still Refuses to Support Vaping as Smoking-Cessation Method as More People Use E-Cigs to Quit

Electric Tobacconist USA Special Report

Which is better: smoking or vaping? This is the question health authorities around the world are grappling with as they devise policies on e-cigarettes, the increasingly popular device that a growing number of people have used to kick their deadly habit.

Some countries have made their minds up and banned vaping entirely, while others have openly embraced the notion that vaping is a sure-fire way of getting off tobacco products and becoming healthier as a result. Among the latter is the United Kingdom, which in recent times has been at the forefront of scientific and medical research into the effects of e-cigarettes, and whose health institutions fully support vaping as a way to quit smoking and recommend smokers switch to e-cigarettes without delay.

Nations that have outlawed the use of e-cigarettes and the e-liquid they use have generally formulated their policy on advice from the World Health Organization (WHO) — some, like Thailand, enforce harsh penalties for those who are caught with e-cigarettes, including up to a decade in prison — that was issued in 2016 and hasn’t changed since. “We do not recommend the use of vaping products — or any other smoking product — but the use of licensed and recommended forms of nicotine to help adult smokers quit smoking,” Vinayak Prasad, the head of the WHO’s Tobacco Control Programme, told Electric Tobacconist USA.

“The existing body of scientific evidence regarding the effectiveness of [vaping] as a smoking cessation aid is scant and of low certainty,” he said.

Girl vaping

British Authorities and Vaping

Taking the British example, organisations and medical bodies, including the National Health Service; Public Health England (PHE); Royal College of Physicians; Cancer Research UK and others, have carried out their own studies on vaping and come to the conclusion that it’s practically harmless compared to using tobacco products like cigarettes and pipes.

In a review of 2015 vaping advice issued earlier this year, PHE found that “vaping poses only a small fraction of the risks of smoking and switching completely from smoking to vaping conveys substantial health benefits.” It added that “e-cigarettes could be contributing to at least 20,000 successful new quits per year and possibly many more,” and that “e-cigarette use is associated with improved quit success rates over the last year and an accelerated drop in smoking rates across the country”.

PHE Health Improvement director Professor John Newton said, however, that many smokers did not yet have correct information about vaping.

“Our new review reinforces the finding that vaping is a fraction of the risk of smoking — at least 95% less harmful — and of negligible risk to bystanders. Yet over half of smokers either falsely believe that vaping is as harmful as smoking or just don’t know,” he said. “It would be tragic if thousands of smokers who could quit with the help of an e-cigarette are being put off due to false fears about their safety.”

Is WHO Vaping Advice Costing Lives?

Tobacco kills half its users, which leads to a shocking global death toll of around 7 million people a year. Close to 1 million of those are people who don’t smoke, but inhale the smoke of others — demonstrating how lethal cigarette smoke and its many toxins are. It’s now known, for example, that of the thousands of harmful substances given off by burning tobacco, at least 70 of them are carcinogenic.

It would appear incongruous that countries that have banned vaping permit aggressive marketing and advertising of cigarettes — including to children — that are killing their own people. And indeed, as Western markets for cigarette products start to dry up, some giant tobacco companies are getting out of the tobacco game entirely and moving to vaping instead. Philip Morris, which owns the iconic Marlboro brand, announced earlier this year that it’s trying to quit — in the UK at least. Meanwhile, the tobacco peddling continues in less-developed parts of the world.

The WHO may be making tentative moves towards supporting vaping, however, and therefore helping to save lives. Tobacco control chief Prasad told us that although e-cigarettes “can be an effective cessation tool for some smokers under some circumstances, the products may have the opposite effect on other smokers, under a different set of circumstances.”

But he added that whether vaping devices have “a beneficial or detrimental effect on smoking cessation seems to depend on a number of factors,” factors which include the kind of technology used and if it’s adequate; the motivation and behavior of users; and the regulatory environment in different countries.  

“Therefore,” he said, “we do not recommend the use of vaping products (or any other smoking product), but the use of licensed and recommended forms of nicotine to help adult smokers quit smoking.”

Meanwhile, countries such as the UK, New Zealand and others are urging smokers to take up vaping, as part of their drive to become “smoke-free” in the coming years.

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