E-cigarettes are potentially dangerous to public health and their growing popularity among young people risks making smoking “normal” again, a scathing World Health Organisation report has found.
The health body on Tuesday recommended that governments should reduce demand for the products by cracking down on “unproven claims” made by the industry about their harmlessness and ban users from modifying the devices.
The WHO report found there was growing evidence to suggest that all electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) — including e-cigarettes and vapes — are associated with a variety of respiratory illnesses including emphysema, asthma and bronchitis.
It said the tobacco industry — faced with declining sales of conventional cigarettes — had found “a new way to make money” by marketing the products to young people while sustaining nicotine addiction among existing users.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: "Nicotine is highly addictive. Electronic nicotine delivery systems are harmful, and must be better regulated.
“Where they are not banned, governments should adopt appropriate policies to protect their populations from the harms of electronic nicotine delivery systems, and to prevent their uptake by children, adolescents and other vulnerable groups.”
Researchers said no attempt to restrict their use “may increase acceptance of smoking” and risked “renormalising smoking in society”.
The report was released two days after Philip Morris, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes, said it would stop selling traditional cigarettes in the UK within a decade.
“And actually, the sooner it happens, the better it is for everyone,” chief executive Jacek Olczak said.
WHO disputes tobacco industry claims
But the WHO said such claims were an attempt by the tobacco industry to “gain respectability” while continuing to “reap profits from all possible avenues”.
“The tobacco industry increasingly positions itself as a legitimate partner and stakeholder in tobacco control, but its interests are fundamentally at odds with control efforts,” the report said.
“The tobacco industry simultaneously portrays themselves as working towards a ‘smoke-free’ future, while at the same time promoting — and making most of their profits from — conventional smoked tobacco across the world.”
It said most of British American Tobacco’s profits from electronic products in 2019 were generated by dual users who used both the devices and cigarettes.
“The commercialisation and marketing of ENDS currently practised by the tobacco and related industries is not aligned with the cause of public health,” the report said.
“While the tobacco industry claims to be committed to harm reduction, their duplicity is demonstrated by how they simultaneously aggressively promote tobacco products where they can, and especially in low- and middle-income countries continue to circumvent and undermine legislation to regulate conventional tobacco products.”
It said e-cigarettes and vapes were made to look “glamorous and hyper-modern” to appeal to young people, but warned the devices were a "gateway" to tobacco.
It cited a recent review that found children and adolescents using them are more than twice as likely to later use conventional cigarettes.
Clive Black, an analyst at Shore Capital, said the industry was facing a “perfect storm” of increasing government regulation and changing societal attitudes.
“Whichever way you cut it, the long-term barriers to tobacco companies are only going to grow and grow,” he told The National.
“There’s been a structural change in the consumption of tobacco, not just in the UK, but in many old economies for many years.”
Cancer Research UK chief executive Michelle Mitchell said the smoke-free claims made by Philip Morris should be taken with a grain of salt.
“We’ve heard these empty promises from the tobacco industry before and we’re concerned this move is part of an attempt by Big Tobacco to position itself as part of the solution to a smoke-free UK, all the while continuing to promote and sell lethal cigarettes here and globally,” she said.
“We know from our work supporting low and middle income countries in the fight against tobacco industry interference that Philip Morris’ actions globally don’t match up with their smoke-free world rhetoric.”