In a move at odds with most public health experts, an influential medical group in Britain has supported the use of electronic cigarettes to help tobacco smokers quit, saying that the benefits far outweigh the harm.
The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) laid out its arguments in a new report published Thursday, emphasizing how lethal and addictive cigarette smoking is and concluding that e-cigarette use is "much safer" than conventional smoking.
The report summarizes the enormous body of research on e-cigarettes, explaining that these devices —which heat and vaporize flavored nicotine liquid, then directly deliver the vapor to the user's lungs via inhalation — are actually helping users more than harming them.
The report says worries about whether the devices would become a gateway for youngsters to try traditional cigarettes have not happened.
John Britton of the University of Nottingham, leader of the committee that wrote the report, said e-cigarette use is the first genuinely new smoking cessation method that has come along in recent years. He said the device can potentially help smokers kick the habit.
"That's a huge health benefit, bigger than just about any medical intervention," said Britton.
Professor Linda Bauld of Stirling University, a co-author of the report, said that unlike tobacco, nicotine from e-cigarettes supposedly does not cause lung and heart diseases or cancer.
Bauld said the ideal method for smoking cessation is to "use nothing," but as an alternative, nicotine should be encouraged to deliver a cleaner form than more harmful conventional cigarettes.
However, the group's conclusion will surely be taken with a grain of salt. In the United States, discussions that revolve around e-cigarette use have shaken the public health community.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has focused its efforts on investigating the potential harms of e-cigarettes, including the risk that they could extend smoking habits instead of stop them, as well as the chance that vapor from e-cigarettes could result to long-term negative effects.
A spokesperson for the CDC declined to comment on the RCP report, but reiterated their stance on the matter, saying that there is no conclusive evidence that support the safety and efficacy of e-cigarettes as a tool for smoking cessation.
"The science thus far indicates most e-cigarette users continue to smoke conventional cigarettes," the CDC said.
Stanton A. Glantz, an outspoken critic of e-cigarettes and a professor of medicine at University of California, said the RCP's decision will take England into a series of policies that they will later regret.
"They are turning England into this giant experiment on behalf of the tobacco industry," said Glantz.
Nevertheless, others have praised the report. Action and Smoking Health UK received the findings well.
"Electronic cigarette vapor does not contain smoke, which is why vaping is much less harmful," said ASH Chief Executive Deborah Arnott.
Public health professor Kenneth Warner acknowledged the opposition between two countries.
"One is focused exclusively on the hypothetical risks, none of which have been established," said Warner. "The other is focusing on potential benefits."
Warner said the British are addressing issues regarding main smokers who are largely poor and less educated, while the Americans are focused on hypothetical risks, none of which have been established yet.
Meanwhile, the RPC asserts that with the emergence of e-cigarettes, there is a massive opportunity for a consumer and health care-led "revolution" in the way that nicotine is used in society.
"The vision of a society that is free from tobacco smoking, and the harm that smoking causes, becomes more realistic," the report added.
Photo: Lindsay Fox | Flickr