Arguments just a smokescreen for opponents of e-cigarettes

IT’S an odd one, this concern that Government chief whip Paul Kehoe has with the dangers allegedly posed by electronic cigarettes.

Arguments just a smokescreen for opponents of e-cigarettes

The junior minister has written to Health Minister James Reilly and State’s chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, asking them to “clarify the legal status” of the products “for which the health effects are uncertain.”

He claims to have been approached by people “worried” by what he calls “glamorous advertising”, and he cites a World Health Organisation conclusion that until these devices are deemed safe consumers should be strongly advised not to use any of these products. Kehoe wants “strong regulation of these devices”.

Kehoe is the first prominent Irish politician to fall in line with a pattern emerging throughout Europe, and other parts of the world, where electronic cigarettes seem to be upsetting people almost as much as the real things.

Denmark, Belgium and Norway have banned them, as have Turkey, Brazil, Argentina and Singapore. Despite the absence of smoke — which means there can be no impact on non- smokers as caused by second hand smoke from real cigarettes — France is looking at banning their use in pubs and restaurants and other public places.

Medical experts in France have recommended e-cigarettes should be subject to the same restrictions as tobacco, with a ban on sale to under-18s in case they become a “gateway” to smoking tobacco. The French are considering the enforcement of the same advertising rules on electronic cigarettes as regular cigarettes, warning against their use by pregnant or breastfeeding women and allowing them only to be sold at approved places.

As a non-smoker I admit I have not used e-cigs, but I have had a look at them and read about them. My understanding is that they allow smokers to get a nicotine fix and the sensation of smoking without exposing themselves or others to the toxins, tar and carbon monoxide in tobacco smoke. The filter contains an atomiser and a cartridge of nicotine, suspended in liquid. When the “smoker” takes a drag, the atomiser converts this into a vapour that looks like smoke, but isn’t, as he or she inhales and then blows out.

The author Lionel Shriver has written how “this newfangled nicotine delivery system is dead cool. The gently warm vapour ingeniously replicates the reflective pause of a real fag, the same quiet little buzz. But it doesn’t stink up your breath, cover surfaces with ash, turn the air acrid, stain your fingers, brown your teeth, reduce bone mass of the jaw, promote gum disease, or — wait for the drum roll — cause cancer. Nor does an e-cig give anyone in your vicinity cancer.”

The seeming absence of carcinogens would appear to me to be a very good thing. Funnily enough the anti-tobacco lobby is more vocal in its condemnation of e-cigs than the tobacco industry and gets outraged by seductive arguments of the kind made by Shriver, even when they reference the obvious downsides to “real” smoking.

These critics point to the medical debate on the possible impact of some of the vapours’ ingredients, which include propylene glycol, which irritates airways, and formaldehyde, which is known to raise lung and nasal cancer risk. But it seems that the appearance of these items and of how people use them is offensive too. There are accusations that obvious use in public places could lead to the “renormalising” of smoking.

Are these effects anywhere as risky or bad as what tobacco do? If electronic cigarettes were to become a socially acceptable norm, would it not follow that lung cancer and emphysema rates would fall sharply? What about all the medical experts who have made the seemingly reasonable point that millions of lives could be saved if all smokers were to use e-cigarettes instead of normal cigarettes? Critics have complained that the products work inconsistently, that, in the absence of regulation there is little certainty as to how much nicotine is being ingested, or its purity, and cite the absence of peer-reviewed clinical trials. But we have all the evidence needed to tell us that conventional tobacco cigarettes kill and not only do states sanction their sale, they raise massive taxes from them. This money may be used to fund health services used by smokers, but often the tax benefits outweigh the health costs borne by the State.

The finances of all of this are worth examining. Financial analysts at a stockbroking firm called Canaccord Genuity recently published their opinions that shares in British American Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco are likely to lose value because of the surge in popularity of e-cigs.

The brokers think electronic cigarettes “will prove to be the most significant development in the history of the organised tobacco industry, stretching back some 200 years. We expect consumers worldwide to migrate from tobacco smoking to e-cigarettes at an accelerating rate through 2020.”

The firm estimates the e-cigarette market will grow from $2bn in 2012 to $3bn in 2013, with 1.3m people in the UK now believed to be using e-cigs. While these numbers are big they are dwarfed by overall tobacco revenues of an incredible $700bn. But in the longer term the analysts believe the total combined market will shrink at a more rapid rate than most investors envisage as e-cigarettes wean smokers off tobacco, but do not attract new users into the overall category. This is bad news for shareholders in tobacco firms.

It is not all bad news. Big tobacco must have been very happy with the publication recently of an EU tobacco product directive that proposed effectively banning any e-cigs that deliver remotely enough nicotine to make them an attractive alternative to tobacco.

It could even be the case that, despite all the “wars” that are waged against cigarette smoking, and the admissions as to the enormous additional costs to the public health bill caused by tobacco-related illness, the State wants to protect the money that it receives from tobacco-related taxes.

Enda Kenny, Kehoe’s boss in the department of An Taoiseach, was among a group, that also included Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, that welcomed a delegation from the Irish tobacco industry to his office on May 7. It included PJ Carroll chief executive Steven Donaldson; John Player chief Andrew Meagher and chief of Japan Tobacco International, John Freda.

The Irish Tobacco Manufacturer’s Advisory Committee said the single agenda in the talks was to highlight the illicit tobacco trade and the financial implications of the loss of revenue to both parties.

Nothing was said about the impact on their business of the surge of interest in e-cigarettes. But for how long will that threat exist if politicians like Paul Kehoe, inadvertently, perhaps take up the cudgels against something that is not known to harm on behalf of a form of smoking that we know kills.

-The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.

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