Vaping: Sinner or sinned against?

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Vaping: Sinner or sinned against?

Friday, 12 April 2019 | Deepak Mukarji

Although not harmless, e-cigarettes are definitely safer than smoking. Like many countries, India, too, must look at them as harm-reduction alternatives, says Deepak Mukarji

Vaping is rapidly becoming a victim of polyphony. This is where the choice of what suits the ‘political narrative’ becomes clear. The problem is that if it is stated often enough, people begin to believe it is a rule. But scientific facts around vaping stand to the contrary. An executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care in the United Kingdom, Public Health England (PHE), in its reports of 2015 and 2018 firmly declared that vaping is 95 per cent safer than smoking and as such encouraged it as a harm reduction product for smokers, who cannot or find it difficult to quit smoking tobacco.

In recent times, a number commentators has taken obfuscated positions on vaping. The truth is simpler: The vaping device was an invention made in 2003 by a pharmacist called Hon Lik in 2003. Ever since, this device has spawned an industry that is globally valued at under $10 billion with most manufacturing happening in China. Given the confusion being raised by vested interests, legislation for this industry has been slow in coming and in some cases, has been regressive in the shape of bans. As a consequence, vaping devices are almost cottage-industry products with low-production quality, resulting in unreliable and poor performance. Therefore, there is a crying need for regulation of production standards for these harm-reduction products. Ironically, the product that vaping devices are supposedly replacing are cigarettes, which are still sold legally, providing tremendous tax revenues to Governments across the world.

The undeniable reality is that tobacco is bad for health. Several researches have proved beyond doubt that smokers are more prone to cancer and cardio-vascular diseases. The world must move to becoming tobacco-free. Tobacco companies have rightfully been accused of manipulating science and misrepresenting facts that were misguiding consumers. But they have been brought to heel as it were. Yet today, vested interests are behaving in exactly the same manner when it comes to vaping devices, to the detriment of smokers.

The freedom of adult choice is the cornerstone of human existence in a civilised world. Despite information being available and marketed, many adult smokers would like to quit but lack the will. Estimates by the World Health Organisation (WHO) state that by 2025, the world will still have one billion smokers even though the number of people giving up tobacco is increasing every year. Progressive governments are recognising the issue and attempting to address it through taking another look at vaping as a harm-reduction alternative.

Nicotine is a naturally-occurring substance found not just in tobacco but also in vegetables like potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli and eggplant among others. The WHO maintains that nicotine can be consumed through nicotine-delivery substitutes developed by large pharma companies such as gums, patches and sprays that are easily available. Vaping devices (incorrectly but commonly referred to as e-cigarettes) have nothing to do with cigarettes. The fundamental difference lies in smoke. Cigarettes deliver smoke by actual burning of tobacco at over 750°C. Vaping devices do not generate smoke. By using an electric charge to heat liquid pharma-grade nicotine to between 100-150°C, these devices create vapour. This pharma-grade nicotine with polypropelene glycol (a food processing additive) and glycerine make it usable in vaping devices. A 2018 study by PHE on emissions from cigarettes and e-cigarettes calculated life-time cancer risks. It was found that cancer potencies of e-cigarettes was under 0.5 per cent of the risk of smoking.

In favour of a tobacco-free world, Konstantinos Farsalinos from the Onassis Cardiac Surgery Center and University of Patras (Greece) believes consumers should be offered a third option to “quit or die”. According to him, “Study after study shows that eight out of 10 smokers are unable to quit on their own, or after using pharmaceutical products such as patches or pills. And if they don’t quit, those studies also show that 50 per cent of them will die from tobacco-related diseases.” The UK is probably ahead of the pack of countries who are seriously looking at harm-reduction products for smokers and who lack the will to quit because they derive a subjective pleasure from the simulated action. Vaping devices mimic the smoking action.

The Indian tobacco scenario is complex. While cigarettes represent the most common face of tobacco, in reality, the over 100 million cigarette smokers represent a mere four per cent  of the overall Indian tobacco market. Others are khaini (11.2 per cent of tobacco use), bidi (7.7 per cent), gutka (6.8 per cent) and betel quid with tobacco (5.8 per cent). Given the terrible harm tobacco causes, India must strike at all tobacco use. However, it must more urgently enact a regulation to manufacture 95 per cent safer harm-reduction products like vaping devices and make these products at home instead of letting customers access them illegally through smuggled products.  Prejudice and polyphony cannot become an excuse to curtail scientific development of harm-reduction alternatives to an absolute killer like tobacco.

(The writer is a freelancer)

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