E-cigarettes described as life-savers – but how safe are they?

e-cigarettesScientists say that if all the smokers around the world converted to using e-cigarettes instead of smoking regular tobacco cigarettes, millions of deaths could be avoided.

According to public health charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), smoking is responsible for the deaths of around 100,000 each year just in the UK alone. Globally, 600,000 lives are lost due to secondhand smoke exposure alone.

ASH also say that an estimated 80% of deaths from lung cancer can be attributed to smoking, in addition to 80% of deaths from bronchitis and emphysema, and around 17% of deaths from heart disease can be put down to smoking.

The pros and cons of e-cigarettes were the source of discussion on Tuesday as 250 scientists, experts, policymakers and industry figures all convened for the E-Cigarette Summit at the Royal Society in London.

In the UK there are currently about 700,000 people using e-cigarettes. There are those who combine ‘vaping’, as it is usually referred to, with regular tobacco-based cigarettes, whereas others quit smoking regular cigarettes and simply use e-cigarettes.

A battery-operated e-cigarette works by vaporising a liquid solution containing nicotine. Regular cigarettes are comprised of thousands of toxic chemicals that are linked to a wide number of health problems such as many types of cancer, heart disease and stroke. Despite still containing nicotine – albeit a much lesser amount – e-cigarettes are considered substantially safer than regular cigarettes.

“Cigarettes are killing 5.4-million people per year in the world,” said health psychology professor and Cancer Research UK director of tobacco studies Robert West as he spoke to delegates.

Professor West said millions of lives could be saved each year if smokers switched to e-cigarettes and added: “The big question, and why we’re here, is whether that goal can be realized and how best to do it…and what kind of cultural, regulatory environment can be put in place to make sure that’s achieved. I think it can be achieved but that’s a hope, a promise, not a reality.”

He also commented how e-cigarettes were involved in nearly a third of all attempts to quit smoking. They are between 95% and 99% safer than regular cigarettes, yet some countries still insist on banning them. Whether or not regulation involving medicinal rules should be introduced was a hot topic for debate among the delegates, of which some voiced concerns about e-cigarettes becoming a gateway for people who have not previously smoked.

Added to the fears about e-cigarettes, is just how safe they are without necessary regulations in place. Some poorly-manufactured e-cigarettes have been reported to overheat and even combust.

ASH CE Deborah Arnott acknowledged the benefits of them for public health, but stressed there is still a certain lack of understanding about their long-term effects. She also said that perhaps worryingly, tobacco companies are buying out the major e-cigarette manufacturers.

She commented: “ASH thinks that e-cigarettes have significant potential. They are a lot less harmful than smoking. Clearly smokers find them attractive, primarily as a way of quitting and moving away from smoking, which they know will kill them. I think the jury’s out and these products need regulating because there’s a real concern that their safety and effectiveness is not guaranteed without regulation.”

Arnott added: “The tobacco companies are moving in. For them it’s potentially a ‘Kodak moment’ because if everyone moved to e-cigarettes, they’d lose their market, so they’ve got to be in there. A lot of the bigger e-cigarette companies have already been bought up. If there are carcinogens in there, you won’t see an immediate effect but 10, 15, 20 years down the line, people will be dying from that. The development of e-cigarettes is definitely running ahead of the science.”

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