Newspaper article The Canadian Press

E-Cigarettes Take Social Scene by Storm; Pose Headaches for Regulators

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

E-Cigarettes Take Social Scene by Storm; Pose Headaches for Regulators

Article excerpt

E-cigarettes take social scene by storm

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TORONTO - You may not have known what an e-cigarette was at the start of 2013. But chances are, you do now.

Leo DiCaprio and Katherine Heigl puff on them. Talk show host Jenny McCarthy and actor Stephen Dorff hawk them. For that matter, so does Santa Claus (at least in one controversial billboard).

A telltale sign of the burgeoning popularity of e-cigarettes: Internet searches for the products have grown exponentially in recent years. A study by U.S. researchers showed a several hundred-fold increase in searches for the devices over other smoking alternatives such as nicotine patches between 2008 and 2010.

"It's far outpacing anything else in many parts of the world," says senior author Dr. John Brownstein, an associate professor at Harvard University.

Another U.S. study suggested that in 2012, eight per cent of people in the general population had tried an e-cigarette, an activity that's called vaping (it rhymes with taping). About a third of smokers reported having tried the devices.

With their glowing tips and exhaled mist, e-cigarettes are designed to simulate smoking. Depending on what kind of fluid cartridge -- juice in e-cigarette jargon -- they are loaded with, some deliver a hit of tobacco's addictive component, nicotine, while others use non-nicotine laced fluid in a raft of flavours including chocolate, mango and banana cream.

You might think anything that would entice or help smokers to quit would be wholeheartedly embraced by the public health field. But in this case, you would be wrong. Addiction treatment specialists, public health officials and tobacco control advocates are divided over whether e-cigarettes are useful smoking cessation aids or Big Tobacco's latest attempt to retain, regain and expand market share by getting a new generation of customers -- teenagers -- hooked on nicotine.

Should the devices, like cigarettes, be barred from restaurants, workplaces and other indoor settings? Or are they sufficiently different -- and sufficiently safe for users and the people around them -- to merit more lax regulatory treatment? Would less stringent rules for e-cigarettes "renormalize" smoking, undoing decades of anti-tobacco efforts by rendering the act of smoking -- or simulated smoking -- cool again? Will youth who start by vaping graduate to smoking cigarettes?

There are no immediate answers.

E-cigarettes are "hugely controversial," says Jessica Pepper, a doctoral candidate in health behaviour at the University of North Carolina. Pepper, who specializes in tobacco control policies, has been researching the devices.

"You have some parts of the scientific community saying 'E-cigarettes are bound to be safer than regular cigarettes so if e-cigarettes help smokers quit, we're going to be saving a ton of lives.' Then you have the other side of the debate where people are saying 'Well, what if smokers decide not to quit because e-cigarettes keep them addicted? What if smokers don't quit because they think it's OK to maybe just cut back a little on smoking and add e-cigarettes?'"

In the face of the uncertainty -- and exploding sales -- governments have been forced to respond. But the international regulatory approach to e-cigarettes resembles a patchwork quilt.

Last week New York City passed a bill that bans e-cigarette use in restaurants, bars and clubs. In the U.S., where this fall 40 state attorneys general called for tighter regulation of e-cigarettes, the Food and Drug Administration plans to treat the devices like tobacco products.

In Britain, e-cigarettes will be regulated as a medicine, which will likely set a higher bar for manufacturers seeking approval for the products. But the European Union, which had intended to regulate them as medical devices, has steered away from that path. Last week the European commission announced it will set safety and quality standards for the devices and refills, impose stricter rules on advertising and require the products to be sold with safety warnings. …

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