E-CIGARETTES are electronic vaporisers which mimic smoking, stripping away the dangerous part of puffing (the inhalation of tar from tobacco) and delivering just the nicotine. They do not cause gum disease or lung cancer to users; nor do they produce ash, unpleasant smells or noxious fumes for bystanders. Many think they could save thousands of lives, and should therefore be welcomed. But now France says it will prohibit "vaping" in public spaces, and Britain plans to regulate them as medicines from 2016. Why do some people object to e-cigarettes?
Attitudes to e-cigarettes, and the degree of regulation they face, vary widely from one country to another. Austria and New Zealand classify them as medical devices and restrict their sale; Australia, Brazil, Lebanon and Singapore have banned them outright. The smokeless devices can, technically at least, be used in hospitals and on planes in many countries. Ryanair, an Irish airline, even sells them on-board, though other carriers, such as American Airlines and Scandinavian Airlines, prohibit them. In 2009 America's Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates tobacco products, found traces of carcinogens and a harmful substance used in anti-freeze in two brands of e-cigarettes, and subsequently blocked shipments from China. That has fuelled misgivings about their quality and safety, though scientific evidence one way or the other is scant.
One health-related worry is that a smokeless device may encourage higher consumption of nicotine, which can be poisonous in large doses (though whether e-cigarettes can deliver such a large dose is unclear). But even if they prove to be perfectly safe, that is not the only objection that has been raised against e-cigarettes. Health lobbyists fret that e-cigarettes will act as an introduction to the real thing, especially for youngsters (the nicotine-laced liquids they rely on are often flavoured). Anti-smoking campaigners, meanwhile, protest that e-cigarettes may make smoking socially acceptable again, after years of fighting to “denormalise” it. Most look just like cigarettes, with a tip that glows when inhaled. Advertisements for them have appeared on American and British television, from which cigarette advertising has been banned for decades. Another objection is that e-cigarettes perpetuate smokers' addiction to nicotine, discouraging them from cutting down their nicotine consumption or quitting altogether. This irks big pharmaceutical companies which manufacture smoking-cessation options, such as gum and patches. If the e-cigarette spells the demise of the real sort, governments will lose out, too: Britain’s government raked in £12 billion ($18 billion) in tobacco taxes last year, for example. (Tinfoil-hat types suggest that this explains governments' antipathy towards e-cigarettes.) Finally, those who vape can inspire contempt from real smokers who think fake puffs are naff.
E-cigarettes have provoked criticism from all sides, in short. That may be good news for tobacco giants who hope to go on selling the ordinary sort. But some analysts think e-cigarette sales could overtake those of cigarettes within a decade. Last year Lorillard, which manufactures Kent cigarettes, bought Blu, an e-cigarette maker, in anticipation of the boom. Other tobacco firms may make similar moves as an insurance policy. Meanwhile, the debate on regulation, restrictions and taxes will continue. There is a good case for regulating e-cigarettes to ensure quality and safety, and to keep them out of the hands of children. But overly strict regulation could snuff out a new industry with the potential to save smokers from a lot of harm.
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