Jury is still out on whether ‘vaping’ is the best way to give up the smokes
As a word, vaping has yet to achieve common currency, but it is getting there. Short for vapourising, it describes the process whereby nicotine is inhaled into the body by those who smoke electronic cigarettes.
These e-cigarettes, as they are known, have gone from being a curiosity a couple of years ago to a near-ubiquitous presence in convenience shops and garages.
Increasingly, in pubs and clubs the little red or blue glow of e-cigarettes is replacing what was once the fug of cigarette smoke.
E-cigarettes were first introduced in China in 2004, the same year that Ireland introduced the workplace smoking ban.
As smoking restrictions increase with every passing year around the world, they have become more popular.
The battery-powered devices let users inhale nicotine-infused vapours. These e-cigarettes use a vapour to deliver the nicotine hit to users.
Crucially, there is no tar, carbon monoxide or any of the other chemicals that make cigarettes such a deadly product.
E-cigarettes are not carcinogenic because nicotine, the only relevant agent in them, does not cause cancer.
Because there is no secondhand smoke, they are not banned indoors and they leave no lingering smell. It is hardly surprising then that they are being seized upon by smokers as an alternative to cigarettes.
“I was smoking €5,000 worth of cigarettes a year and I couldn’t afford to keep doing it, not to mention the health effects,” he said. “I know they work. I’d recommend them to anybody. I know somebody who was on 60 a day and hasn’t touched a cigarette since taking them up.”
Cheaper than cigarettes
Kelly estimates that the cost to him from smoking e-cigarettes is 10-15 per cent that of smoking cigarettes. E-cigarettes are much cheaper than cigarettes, though there is anecdotal evidence to suggest the standalone ones which are advertised as the equivalent of 30, 40 or 60 cigarettes do not last anywhere near that length of time.
The Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland advised pharmacies in June 2011 that, in the absence of appropriate regulation, electronic cigarettes should not be offered for sale in pharmacies.
Oncologist Prof John Crown is ambivalent: “I would, generally speaking, be pro-anything that gets people off cigarettes. On an individual basis, I know people who have sworn by them.
‘Nicotine is a toxin’
“I don’t believe they are carcinogenic, but I don’t think they are harmless either. Nicotine is a toxin, but it is not as big a cancer-causing toxin. Nicotine does stuff to your arteries, the speed of your heart and brain function, but it is nowhere in the same area as cigarettes.”
‘On a par with caffeine’
However, electronic cigarettes have found an ally in Prof John Britton who is the director of the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies at the University of Nottingham.
He said recently that nicotine was not a “particularly hazardous drug, it’s probably on a par with caffeine” though he did stress that the lack of standardisation across various e-cigarette manufacturers needed to be dealt with.
The electronic cigarette industry is booming.
In the UK, an estimated 1.3 million people use them. Figures are not available for Ireland, but pro rata this would translate to 80,000-100,000. In the US, the number of smokers who tried e-cigarettes doubled in a single year from 10 per cent of all smokers in 2010 to 21 per cent in 2011.
Initially, tobacco companies were reluctant to embrace this alternative to smoking, but that is now changing.
Altria Group, the company which owns arguably the most famous brand in the world, Marlboro, announced last week that it was bringing an e-cigarette brand MarkTen onto the market from August.
Declan Connolly set up his business, ezsmoke.ie, 18 months ago from his home in Kinvara, Co Galway, supplying e-liquids, cigarettes and batteries and also has a blog on the subject of vaping.
He says his business has doubled in the past year, albeit from a low base. He believes electronic cigarettes are for those who are smokers or those who are trying to give them up.
“We sell these as an alternative to smoking. They are absolutely not for non-smokers. We don’t see any point in encouraging people to have a nicotine addiction.”
The UK is pressing for an EU-wide regulation programme to come into force by 2016. It believes countries such as France, Germany and Denmark are likely to take a similar path.
In France the health minister Marisol Touraine has announced restrictions on the use of electronic cigarettes in public places saying that they may encourage people to take up smoking.
In Ireland electronic cigarettes are largely unregulated. A Department of Health and Children spokeswoman said: “They are currently not regulated under tobacco legislation and, as such, there are no regulations in place setting down provisions for their sale or advertising.”
The Minister for Health Dr James Reilly, who is ferociously anti-smoking, said he had asked the Department of Health to review all the evidence in relation to e-cigarettes. He said he was not convinced about their safety and was particularly against them being sold on flights.
“I don’t like that. It’s as if to say that they are harmless. They are not harmless. They contain nicotine which is quite an addictive substance and has cardiovascular effects,” he said.
“They might be safer than regular tobacco because they haven’t got all the toxins in them, but they are still, I believe, not safe and I want to be on evidence-based grounds when I make any policy decision in relation to them and I await that research.”
Ireland has been pressing forward with the EU Tobacco Products Directive which it hopes will be adopted next year.
At present the proposals on the table are for electronic cigarettes to be allowed on the market below a certain nicotine threshold, albeit with warnings.
Above a certain threshold, they will have to be licensed as medicinal products like nicotine replacement therapies (NRT) and would be subject to much tougher regulation.