Leading academics and public health experts have called on the World Health Organization to refrain from ‘reducing the use’ of e-cigarettes ahead of important international negotiations on their regulation status later this year.
In a letter sent to Dr Margaret Chan, director general of WHO, 50 experts said that e-cigarettes ‘could play a significant role’ in driving down smoking prevalence and cigarette consumption.
Their sentiments have been backed up by MP Dr Sarah Wollaston, a former GP and member of the House of Commons Health Committee, who said she would like doctors to be able to recommend e-cigarettes for quitting smoking.
This comes ahead of negotiations later in the year by WHO, which will be looking at differentiating between different tobacco products.
The letter, signed by academics across the world, says: ‘We have known for years that people “smoke for the nicotine, but die from the smoke”: the vast majority of the death and disease attributable to tobacco arises from inhalation of tar particles and toxic gases drawn into the lungs.
‘There are now rapid developments in nicotine-based products that can effectively substitute for cigarettes but with very low risks.’
These include e-cigarettes, the letter said, adding: ‘These tobacco harm reduction products could play a significant role in meeting the 2025 UN non-communicable disease (NCD) objectives by driving down smoking prevalence and cigarette consumption.’
It continues: ‘If regulators treat low-risk nicotine products as traditional tobacco products and seek to reduce their use without recognising their potential as low-risk alternatives to smoking, they are improperly defining them as part of the problem.’
Dr Wollaston said she was supportive of e-cigarettes being prescribed by GPs as part of NHS smoking cessation programmes.
She said: ‘As of next year the MHRA is going to be looking at regulating this as a medicine product and then it could be prescribed by the NHS. I think the important message perhaps for those who are wanting to stop smoking is that the evidence is that the best opportunity to stop smoking is to use an NHS stop-smoking clinic, really that is the best way for people to go if they really want to quit smoking.
‘But what I would personally like to see is for doctors and nurses within those clinics – and the specialist advisers within those clinics – to be able to have another tool in their armoury and I wouldn’t like to see us cut off and have excessive controls on e-cigarettes.’
However, she added that she did support an 18-year age limit to buy e-cigarettes.
A major study published last week claimed that using e-cigarettes as a tool to quit tobacco smoking was 60% more effective than nicotine patches or gum, or using willpower alone.