When Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik invented the electronic cigarette in 2003, it was an attempt to wean himself off tobacco. In the 20 years since Mr Hon first lit up his device, debate has raged not only about the effectiveness of vaping as a way of quitting cigarettes but also if inhaling nicotine-infused vapour causes serious health problems of its own.
The Australian government, however, seems to have made up its mind. In the country's strongest measures against tobacco and nicotine for more than a decade, the authorities this week said they will take steps to ban all disposable vapes, restricting flavours and colours, and reducing their nicotine levels. People will still be allowed to use vapes with a prescription to help them stop smoking cigarettes, but the country’s Health Minister Mark Butler was robust in his criticism of vaping, accusing the tobacco industry of using e-cigarettes “to create a new generation of nicotine addicts”.
The country has joined Singapore and Thailand in introducing tough measures to restrict a product whose long-term effects on health remain largely unknown. Although more research is needed into the consequences of e-cigarette use, the World Health Organisation has already said that they “are harmful to health and are not safe”. Cleveland Clinic warns vaping is more likely to lead to asthma and other lung conditions.
Vaping is a complex medical, legal and commercial issue that touches on personal freedoms and responsibilities. That said, the practice will likely face more restrictions in the future, mirroring the way that tobacco smoking in many countries was eventually pushed out of most public spaces and confined to dedicated smoking areas or people’s homes. In the UAE, it is illegal to vape in offices or other closed spaces, sending out a signal about the practice’s social acceptability and the need for careful measures.
The health implications of e-cigarettes will continue to raise their head, particularly given the nature of who is vaping. Most people who vape are young – the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention says that since 2014, e-cigarettes have been the most commonly used tobacco product among American youth. The American Cancer Society has also cast doubt on the claims that vaping is a safer alternative to smoking saying it “may play a part in some kids or teens wanting to use other, more harmful tobacco products”. This makes it a cause for concern, at the very least.
It is this concern about vaping that seems to have informed Australia’s move and is fuelling the scrutiny that some regulators are applying to a product that came on to the market relatively recently but about which the public knew little. Scientific research into tobacco use took decades to establish the link between smoking and cancer, as well as other serious health conditions. Vaping, as a social phenomenon, is still in its early years.
It is too soon to say if Australia is taking the right step. Some critics have warned that a near ban on vapes could create a market for illegal and unregulated e-cigarettes. But with so much still to be understood about vaping and its consequences, more countries may start to err on the side of caution and rethink their relationship with Mr Hon’s famous device.