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Health experts blast WHO’s ‘anti-vaping activism’

January 24, 2020

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World Health Organisation

A “misleading” health warning from the World Health Organisation on the impact of e-cigarettes and vaping products has been criticised by leading UK experts.

Earlier this week the WHO released a Q&A on its website titled E-Cigarettes: how risky are they? with a series of bold statements which grabbed headlines and raised eyebrows. Key quotes included:

  • “There is no doubt that that they are harmful to health and are not safe”, with the immediate contradiction “but it is too early to provide a clear answer on the long-term impact of using them or being exposed to them.”
  • Answering whether e-cigarettes were more dangerous than cigarettes (for which there is no evidence), WHO was equivocal: “This depends on a range of factors”.
  • The statement conflated the safety of all e-cigarettes with cases of so-called EVALI lung disease in the USA.

The release quickly cause controversy among experts.

Prof Peter Hajek, director of the Tobacco Dependence Research Unit at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), said: “Practically all the factual statements in [the release] are wrong.”

“There is no evidence that vaping is ‘highly addictive’ – less than 1% of non-smokers become regular vapers.  Vaping does not lead young people to smoking – smoking among young people is at all-time low.  There is no evidence that vaping increases risk of heart disease or that could have any effect at all on bystanders’ health.”

Prof Hayek added: “The US outbreak of lung injuries is due to contaminants in illegal marijuana cartridges and has nothing to do with nicotine vaping. There is clear evidence that e-cigarettes help smokers quit.”

Prof John Britton, director of the UK Centre for Tobacco & Alcohol Studies and consultant in Respiratory Medicine, University of Nottingham, also criticised the WHO statement:

“This WHO briefing is misleading on several counts.  It implies that vaping nicotine is the cause of the 2019 US outbreak of severe lung disease, when it was in fact vaping cannabis products.”

Meanwhile, Dr Nick Hopkinson, reader in Respiratory Medicine at the National Heart and Lung Institute Imperial College London, said that the evidence now showed e-cigarettes can aid smoking cessation: “Evidence from randomised controlled trials shows clearly that e-cigarettes can help smokers to quit.”

But the experts, who all work in the area of tobacco control were not uncritical of e-cigarettes. Dr Hopkinson said: “Smokers who switch completely to vaping will gain a significant health benefit. Long term use of e-cigarettes is not completely harmless, so people who vape should aim to quit that too, though not at the expense of going back to smoking.”