The UN agency, which is currently assessing its position on the
matter, has previously indicated it would favor applying similar
restrictions to all nicotine-containing products.
In an open letter to WHO Director General Margaret Chan, the
scientists from Europe, North America, Asia and Australia argued
that low-risk products like e-cigarettes were "part of the solution"
in the fight against smoking, not part of the problem.
"These products could be among the most significant health
innovations of the 21st century – perhaps saving hundreds of
millions of lives. The urge to control and suppress them as tobacco
products should be resisted," the experts wrote.
Leaked documents from a meeting last November suggest the WHO views
e-cigarettes as a "threat" and wants them classified the same way as
regular tobacco products under the Framework Convention on Tobacco
Control (FCTC). (http://link.reuters.com/muq69v)
That has set alarm bells ringing among a number of medical experts -
and in the booming e-cigarette industry. A total of 178 countries
are parties to the international convention and are obliged to
implement its measures, with the United States the one notable
A move to classify e-cigarettes alongside regular cigarettes would
push countries into taking similar tough measures to restrict
demand, including raising taxes, banning advertising, introducing
health warnings and curbing use in public places.
Uptake of electronic cigarettes, which use battery-powered
cartridges to produce a nicotine-laced inhalable vapor, has rocketed
in the last two years and analysts estimate the industry had
worldwide sales of some $3 billion in 2013.
But the devices are controversial. Because they are so new there is
a lack of long-term scientific evidence to support their safety and
some fear they could be "gateway" products to nicotine addiction and
tobacco smoking - though the scientists said they were "unaware of
any credible evidence that supports this conjecture".
In response to the scientists' letter, Penny Woods, chief executive
of the British Lung Foundation, said: "The overall impact of
e-cigarette use on public health is currently unclear. While they
could prove to be an important tool to help people stop smoking, the
unregulated status of e-cigarettes is problematic."
BIG TOBACCO BACKS SCIENTISTS
For tobacco companies seeking to offset the decline in traditional
smoking, investment in e-cigarettes was an obvious choice and all
the major players now have a presence, prompting Big Tobacco to line
up behind scientists on this occasion.
[to top of second column]
Kingsley Wheaton, director of corporate and regulatory affairs at
British American Tobacco, said classifying e-cigarettes as tobacco
products would mean smokers find it harder to access a less risky
In a declaration of interests, none of the scientists said they had
received funding from tobacco companies. However, some have carried
out research on e-cigarettes or acted as consultants for drug
companies making other smoking cessation products, including
GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer.
The Geneva-based WHO said its position on e-cigarettes was still in
flux ahead of a key meeting on the FCTC scheduled for October 13-18
in Moscow, where proposed regulations will be discussed.
"At this point the only thing I can say is that we are elaborating
these regulations and they will soon be available to you," Armando
Peruga, program manager for the WHO's Tobacco Free Initiative told
reporters this week.
Gerry Stimson, emeritus professor at Imperial College London and one
of the organizers of the letter to Chan, told Reuters that the WHO's
position was "bizarre" and its stance on e-cigarettes was harsher
than that of regulators in Europe and the United States.
"We want to make sufficient noise now before things get too set in
stone," he said.
(Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva; Editing by David Evans
and Pravin Char)
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