Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

E-Cig Health Claims Are a Smokescreen to Hook Youth

E-cigarettes could be a Trojan horse for the tobacco industry that offers young people a trendy device that reduces their nicotine intake yet gets them hooked on smoking, according to a commentary published in the Medical Journal of Australia.

Prof Simon Chapman of the University of Sydney argues that the tobacco industry knows “how essential new cohorts of young smokers are to its very survival as an industry… Today, an ever-diminishing 12.8% of Australians aged 14 years and over smoke on a daily basis. The record low uptake of smoking by the young is most responsible for this. The prospect of the industry reversing this inexorably ruinous exodus has been given a major boost with the arrival of ECs.

“The internet is awash with aggressive advertising for ECs, and the wide range of models available make them highly attractive to young people acutely hungry for ever-changing technology with edgy semiotics,” Chapman wrote.

Chapman cites a website sponsored by cigarette manufacturer Lorillard, which stated: “Kids may be particularly vulnerable to trying e-cigarettes due to an abundance of fun flavors such as cherry, vanilla, pina-colada and berry”. He counters: “Many chemical flavourants in ECs have been approved for ingestion in foods, but not for inhalation up to 200 times a day, as occurs with ECs”.

Statistics for EC use in Australia suggest that 15% of people aged 14 or over have used them at least once in the past year, while in the US they are used by youths more commonly than conventional cigarettes.

Manufacturers of e-cigarettes claim that the small amount of nicotine in their products is harmless, but last year a review of the health effects of electronic cigarettes published in Preventative Medicine concluded: “Due to the many methodological problems, severe conflicts of interest, the relatively few and often small studies, the inconsistencies and contradictions in results, and the lack of long-term follow-up, no firm conclusions can be drawn on the safety of ECs”.

Chapman adds that “if the EC advocates are wrong, a less than benign genie with its pharmacological clutches around millions of young people may be extremely difficult to put back in the bottle”.

Even if they do prove less dangerous than cigarettes, Chapman questions why tobacco companies have neither stopped their efforts to “attack and dilute” tobacco control policies nor announced a phase-out of conventional cigarettes. “From this, we can conclude that the companies’ best hopes are for people to smoke and to use ECs or ‘vape’, not to use ECs instead of smoking,” he wrote.

New South Wales has banned selling ECs to minors, but similar tobacco legislation is ignored by many retailers and poorly enforced.