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Tuesday 16 September 2014

Stubbing out e-cigarettes will condemn smokers to death

Ruairi Hanley

Published 29/08/2014 | 02:30

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New laws will ban the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. Picture posed by model
New laws will ban the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. Picture posed by model

Earlier this week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that electronic cigarettes posed a serious threat to public health. They are now advocating severe restrictions on these products, most notably via a global ban on 'vaping' indoors.

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The approach of the WHO is broadly similar to that of the HSE and the Irish Government. The authorities here have moved to ban e-cigarettes from public buildings and public transport. It seems inevitable that further anti-vaping measures will follow.

As a general rule, most members of the medical profession also appear nakedly hostile to any attempts to create a "safer" form of nicotine use.

My own view is very, very different. I believe that severely restricting the use of electronic cigarettes is a highly-irrational policy that could condemn tens of thousands of Irish people to premature and preventable deaths.

The harsh reality is that tobacco continues to be one of the biggest public health problems in Ireland. As it stands, approximately 29pc of the population continues to light up regularly, while the number of tobacco-related deaths stands at roughly 7,000 a year.

By their very nature, e-cigarettes do not contain the same levels of cancer-causing compounds as traditional tobacco, and are thus less likely to cause serious illnesses. Even the most trenchant opponents of vaping grudgingly accept this. The vapour produced by these products largely consists of water mist, which presumably reduces the health risks of second-hand fumes.

If every smoker in Ireland were to switch to e-cigarettes overnight, there can be no doubt that hundreds of lives would be saved every year.

The response of public health campaigners to this argument is to ignore it. They point out that the long-term health effects of vaping are unclear and "further research is needed". This is undeniably true, but it will be of little benefit to those who will die while the academic debate continues.

Anti-smoking activists appear to be convinced that the only strategy worth pursuing is to keep doing what they have done for the last 20 years. Their policy broadly consists of heavy taxation, restrictions on sales and bans on advertising. To be fair, this approach has been very successful.

Nonetheless, I find it hard to escape the conclusion that fresh thinking may be needed to deal with that significant proportion of the population who will continue to puff cigarettes regardless of the consequences.

I cannot understand how we can ignore the fact that electronic cigarettes are far less likely to kill those who we care for in our professional lives. Regrettably, medical practitioners here in Ireland are instinctively conservative and cautious by their very nature.

I find it hard to escape the conclusion that, by opposing vaping, we are allowing people to die for fear of damaging the ideological purity of our anti-smoking crusade.

Electronic cigarettes need not undermine existing, worthy public health initiatives, but should be a complementary mechanism to achieve the same desirable results.

In fact, I would go further. I believe our government should seriously consider raising the costs of traditional cigarettes to €20 a packet, while leaving the costs of the electronic alternatives relatively low.

Such a move would almost instantly have a dramatic impact on the health of the Irish population as more and more hopelessly-addicted tobacco uses would start vaping as a cheaper means of feeding their craving.

To those who oppose this suggestion, I have but two simple questions.

What is your alternative?

And if we do it your way, can you honestly tell me that fewer people will die in the next five years?

The time has come for a mature and honest debate on electronic cigarettes. Lives depend on us getting this right.

Ruairi Hanley is a GP

Irish Independent

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