A New Zealand academic has challenged the World Health Organisation's criticism that e-cigarettes are just as harmful as smoking, arguing that the approach will only protect the cigarette trade and do more harm than good.
The WHO recently warned that e-cigarettes are harmful to people's health as they contain addictive liquids with toxic substances. The organisation also says the devices are opening the door to addiction for youth, blaming the aggressive push for vaping products from big tobacco over the past few years.
Emeritus professor Robert Beaglehole joined TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning ahead of the publication of his editorial in the medical journal Lancet, slamming WHO's criticism of vaping as a smoking cessation tool.
"The World Health Organisation has this issue completely wrong, and it's wrong because it's a big bureaucracy which is not up to speed with the evolving scientific evidence," he said.
"The issues with vaping and other alternatives to smoking is that they work. They're effective in helping people stop, they are safe and they are cheap.
"We need to embrace vaping and other harm reduce products to make sure we make progress towards the Smokefree 2025 goal."
Mr Beaglehole explained that while he had previously worked for the organisation and "loved it", he also said he "knows how it works".
While WHO is concerned about the unknown long-term effects of vaping, he argued that "total abstinence" is "not realistic".
"People have become used to nicotine. They get the nicotine for their addiction, they get the tar and they die from the tar. We have to encourage people to get their nicotine from safer sources.
"Absolute abstinence has worked for some people, but not for everyone, so there are some big issues there."
He said, however, that vaping should not be used as a lifelong alternative to smoking, but "as a transition off smoking and that, ultimately, the goal is to be off all nicotine products".
Mr Beaglehole added he is "not too worried" about people using both vaping and cigarettes for a period of time, because "the evidence is that they will eventually reduce their cigarette consumption and be in a much safer, healthier environment".
While WHO argued that vaping may be used as a gateway to addiction for youth, he said there "is no solid, scientific evidence yet that vaping acts as a gateway".
"Even if it did, even if a very small number of the non-smoking vapers in New Zealand – less than 0.5 per cent of 14- and 15-year-olds went on to vape - it's unlikely.
"Why would they take up smoking? It's filthy, dirty, horrible – and then why would they smoke for 20 years, which you have to do?
"Gateway is a concern - I don't think it’s a serious concern. The new proposed legislation in New Zealand has to be such that it encourages adult smokers to stop and protects children. I think we can do that."
Mr Beaglehole noted, however, that big tobacco pushing vaping and e-cigarette products on particular parts of society is concerning, adding that they are "taking advantage of a regulatory vacuum".
"We've been very slow to regulate the advertising promotion [and] sale of vaping products. That's now coming, but they've taken up this position and I think that's deeply regrettable.
"We need to control the advertising and promotion of vaping products. We don't need to ban them – we need to target them to the people we most want to help to stop smoking."
Mr Beaglehole said your doctor should "absolutely" be recommending vaping as an alternative to smoking.
"Doctors know how hard it is for people to stop," he said. "They know who the committed smokers are. They should look them in the eye and say to you, Anna, if you're a smoker, I suggest you stop. I think you should try vaping - it works, it's safe, it's cheap.'
"We have to do everything we can to ensure that vaping is privileged over smoke tobacco. Make it cheaper; control its advertising and promotion; allow people to vape in enclosed public spaces."
In his journal article, he said vapers should not share their spaces with smokers because vaping outside forces them to vape alongside with smokers, adding that there is "perhaps a tendency that you'll come back on to smoking".
"We have to support people to vape. We have to privilege vaping over smoke tobacco. We have to do it in a lightly regulated way, in a responsive way.
"If we do that, New Zealand will continue to have its leadership in tobacco controlled globally and we'll save millions of lives and we have a better chance of reaching our Smokefree 2025 goal."
Mr Beaglehole said regulations should "distinguish between clearly and in all aspects between the safer alternative, vaping, and the uniquely harmful tobacco".
"It should be a rather light touch in terms of its powers, giving the Government the opportunity to come in later on and deal with an issue that evolves.
"Vaping devices are evolving rapidly. If there was a flavour that was found to be particularly attractive or directed toward young people, we should have the ability to regulate, but not ban all flavours now.
"Smokers like the flavours. That helps them get off the uniquely harmful tobacco, so the regulations have to be reactive, responsive, light touch and distinguish always between the harmful smoke tobacco and the much less harmful, safer vaping devices."