Bucking the trend of declining tobacco sales, e-cigarette sales in Ireland grew by 478% last year, generating €7.3m.
Like most trends, regulation is usually three steps behind the phenomenon.
With sales of e-cigarettes skyrocketing and the EU pushing to curb their use, the debate on controls and restrictions is only beginning in Ireland.
Depending on who you talk to, e-cigarettes offer the greatest hope of eliminating or drastically reducing harmful smoking or they are a new way for tobacco companies to regain their slipping hold in the tobacco market.
E-cigarettes are battery powered and operate using a cartridge filled with nicotine, which has been dissolved in a propylene glycol or vegetable glycerol and water. They emit a vapour which is free of the harmful substances such as tar and, as a result, they are viewed by many as a less harmful substitute to the traditional cigarette.
However, as they are not technically cigarettes, they are, to date, largely free from the strict regulatory controls governing the sale of cigarettes — although this looks set to change sooner rather than later.
What can’t be ignored is their popularity. Although they have been on the market for over a decade, sales figures in the last year have increased enormously and have regulators and the tobacco firms watching closely.
The fact is, e-cigarettes are bucking the trend; tobacco sales in Europe fell by 6% last year.
According to data released by the Nielsen Total Scantrack for Ireland, overall tobacco sales generated almost €1.2bn last year — a huge sum but still a 1.2% decline on the 2012 figure. Sales of cigarettes fell by just under 4%, while the sale of loose tobacco grew by 28%.
However, against this decline, the sale of e-cigarettes here skyrocketed by 478% last year — generating some €7.3m in revenue.
This is before you include online sales which Nielsen said it was unable to track, but conceded were “huge”.
The problem is, there is no consensus on whether the e-cigarette is something to be welcomed or banned. The jury is out on whether they make any real impact in reducing smoking, with various studies offering contradictory views.
There is also the fact that they are harmful to the smoker. While the vapour exhaled is free of tar, and other harmful toxins in cigarettes, it does contain nicotine — an extremely addictive substance.
Moves towards regulating e-cigarettes have already started at EU level. Late last month, MEPs voted in favour of new tobacco rules and confirmed that e-cigarettes would be regulated in the near future.
Member states can decide whether the products are to be classified as medicines or tobacco products. If a country decided to class e-cigarettes as a tobacco product, they will need to carry health warnings, be childproofed and be subject to the same restrictions on advertising as tobacco products.
However, the view being adopted by some countries differ markedly. While Canada and Australia have banned e-cigarettes pending further research, countries like France are treating them as tobacco products. Other European countries like Norway and Belgium have strict regulations in place on the product.
Earlier this month, Los Angeles, the second largest city in the US, banned the use of e-cigarettes and ‘vaping’ from restaurants, bars, nightclubs and other public spaces. It follows other large US cities like New York, Boston and Chicago in placing restrictions on where people are allowed to use the products.
So where does Ireland stand in the debate? The Department of Health is reviewing the evidence around the health effects of e-cigarettes before deciding how to regulate them. However, it has indicated it is likely to ban the sale of e-cigarettes to under 18s.
“Manufacturers say that e-cigarettes can assist smokers kick the habit of smoking tobacco cigarettes. The minister is currently reviewing the evidence on the potential harm and the potential benefits of e-cigarettes before deciding the best approach to their wider regulation,” a department statement said.
Chairman of Ash Ireland and consultant respiratory physician Dr Ross Morgan said while there was some debate on the whether or not e-cigarettes help reduce smoking, the involvement of the tobacco industry in the production and, more importantly, their marketing was worrying.
“There will be some concerns that the tobacco giants are investing heavily in the e-cigarette industry and, based on past experience, they will have little interest in the quitting potential of this product,” he said.
Certainly, e-cigarettes are being aggressively marketed in ways cigarette manufacturers could only dream of. A trawl of some of the websites selling e-cigarettes show nicotine cartridges coming in flavours like cherry, chocolate and bubble gum.
In the absence of regulation, certain semi-state bodies have already moved to ban their use. Most notably, the major public transport carriers — Iarnród Éireann, Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann have all banned their use on all services they operate.
On the back of a growing backlash from the public, restaurants and pubs have also been advised that while e-cigarettes are not illegal, individual owners can ban their use.
Dublin Bus spokesperson Clíodhna Ní Fhátharta said while it had not been a “major issue” among its customers, the company had banned the product several months ago as it felt “very strongly about keeping our buses a smoke-free environment for both our passengers and employees”.
However, Iarnród Éireann’s Jane Cregan said its ban was brought in directly on foot of customer concerns: “In a confined area, like the carriage of a train, we have had a lot of feedback from customers that are not comfortable with people using replacement cigarettes while they are on the train.”