Recent cases in the United States have raised concerns over the safety of e-cigarettes. Authorities continue their efforts to get to the bottom of this new health crisis, with vitamin E acetate having been identified as a chemical of concern. In the face of this, many consumers are understandably questioning how they can be reassured about the products they are using.
While e-cigarettes are well established in many countries, there are big differences between the way the US regulates vaping compared to other regions like the EU. In addition, to date there are no universal product standards in this relatively new, yet fast-growing product category. What the recent cases in the US highlight is the importance of having - and enforcing - robust and effective regulations which ensure high product standards.
While the only way to fully eliminate all the health risks associated with tobacco and nicotine products is not to use them at all, there’s growing evidence that newer devices like e-cigarettes may offer a less risky alternative to smoking cigarettes. That’s because most of the health-related risks associated with smoking are known to be caused by toxins released during the tobacco burning process. Newer products like e-cigarettes, oral tobacco and nicotine, and tobacco heating products, don’t involve burning while e-cigarettes don’t even contain tobacco. In the wake of the issues in the US, Public Health England (PHE) maintains that while not being risk-free, vaping is at least 95% less harmful than smoking.
Many ask why the health crisis in the US has not materialised on this side of the Atlantic. Europe has some of the biggest markets in the world for vaping – the UK, France and Germany, for example – yet there have been no such incidents reported in these member states to date.
There are a few key differences in the way the EU treats vaping products in comparison to the US which may account for this. For instance, EU-wide rules under its Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) means authorities in each member country require manufacturers to test and report on all ingredients and emissions at least six months before a product goes to market. There is also a limit on the concentration of nicotine in vaping products in the EU, as opposed to the US. The TPD further requires manufacturers to disclose ingredients in e-liquids and finally, the EU has an incident notification system in place that puts it in a better position to monitor and control any issues that could potentially arise with particular products. This system provides a comprehensive set of rules which help reduce risks to vapers and may help explain why to date no similar spate of illnesses has arisen.
Consumer education is also key. Any adult smoker considering switching from cigarettes to e-cigarettes needs to be educated about how to know the product they are buying comes from a reputable source, to ensure they are only using products that have been thoroughly tested, and are using them in the way the manufacturer intended. Retailers play an important role here as ambassadors for the vaping category, yet public health authorities should also step up their efforts to provide balanced information on how to source and use e-cigarettes safely. This could avoid consumers getting their vaping devices or e-liquids from disreputable sources or using them in a way not intended by the manufacturer.
For manufacturers, a solid focus on product stewardship is really important. Every company that puts e-cigarettes on the market should closely assess them, from what goes into making the liquid, the electronics in the device and what is in the aerosols consumers inhale. Each individual component should be examined.
Ultimately, more governments should implement appropriate regulation ensuring that manufacturers comply with existing battery and electronic legislation. In addition, robust standards for e-cigarette liquid ingredients and emissions are a must. There needs to be far greater dialogue among all parties involved in the industry, including manufacturers, regulators and the scientific community with the same core objective - consumer safety.
Governments must play their part by introducing appropriate regulation regarding the testing and reporting of e-cigarette ingredients and by ensuring enforcement of these requirements. In turn, manufacturers need to ensure they are adhering to regulations and are developing and manufacturing products to the highest quality standards.
The final piece in the puzzle is consumers themselves, who need to be educated on the importance of purchasing vaping products from reputable shops and manufacturers, and that they should not tamper with the products in any way.
- Dr. Chris Proctor is the Group Head of Potentially Reduced-Risk Product (PRRP) Science at British American Tobacco.
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