There’s a new craze sweeping the nation. Adults partaking have formed clubs and meet regularly to indulge. It’s happening on streets, on public transport, in local boozers: anywhere. It’s called vaping.
It doesn’t sound like a terribly agreeable habit - but before you jump to conclusions, it refers to using an electronic cigarette. Vaping is the new - 'safe' - smoking.
E-cigarettes come in various forms: some are designed to look like real cigarettes, others are simply elaborate metal tubes, but both work in the same way. They contain ‘e-liquid’ capsules - nicotine disolved in propylene glycol or glycerine. When turned on (powered by batteries), the devices produce a vapour, which is inhaled (hense 'vaping').
Despite the fact that the long-term effects of smoking e-cigarettes are still unclear, they have become popular with smokers eager to give up, partly because they've been deemed ‘as dangerous as a cup of coffee’ thanks to the absence of tar. Some have claimed if all smokers switched, millions of lives would be saved.
‘Nicotine itself is not a particularly hazardous drug,’ Professor John Britton, who leads the tobacco advisory group for the Royal College of Physicians, has been quoted as saying.
‘It's something on a par with the effects you get from caffeine… If all the smokers in Britain stopped smoking cigarettes and started smoking e-cigarettes, we would save 5 million deaths in people who are alive today. It's a massive potential public health prize.’
Whatever the health implications, it's clear smokers are coming to rely on them. A burgeoning industry has grown up around the sale of e-cigarettes: according to estimates, there are 1.3 million ‘vapers’ in the UK and the number is shooting up. In the US, sales of e-ciggies are expected to pass the $1bn mark this year, up from $600m last year.
‘The industry is growing incredibly rapidly,’ James Dunworth, co-founder of ECigaretteDirect.co.uk, told MT.
‘We started out in 2008 when no one knew what e-cigarettes were. Now we have 19 employees and experienced 400% growth in 2011. We started out online, but people are looking to buy on the high street now so we have opened two shops and are negotiating on a third.’
Trade is clearly roaring for the time being, but there could be a spanner in the works for the electronic cigarette industry. The EU is calling for e-cigarettes to be classed as medicines, if this were to happen, products would need to be in line with medical regulation – something which Dunworth fears is impossible.
‘Non of the current products on the market comply with medical regulations – they want to regulate the dose of nicotine which is delivered and this isn’t possible with current technology,’ says Dunworth.
‘Also, the cost of having a license for each product to a company like ours, which has thirty different flavours, would put us out of business.’
You can see the EU's point: expecting a widely used product to comply with regulations to ensure safety sounds like common sense. According to The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) the e-cigarettes currently on the market do not meet appropriate standards of safety and quality.
‘We can't recommend these products because their safety and quality is not assured, and so we will recommend that people don't use them,’ Jeremy Mean of the MHRA told a news conference.
But to be fair to the industry, there are certain regulations currently in place. E-cigarettes are currently classed as general consumer products and are regulated by trading standards – these stipulate they cannot contain hazardous chemicals. The Electronic Cigarette Industry Trade Association (ECITA) also has its own set of regulations, which members must adhere to.
Currently, the e-cigarette industry is not allowed to make medical claims for their products, for example retailers can’t refer to them as a way to quit smoking. It has been suggested that if they were to be regulated as a medical product, they could be offered on the NHS. Attempts to classify e-ciggies as medical products have been made across the channel in Holland and Germany but the industry shot them down in court.
‘Regulations which guarantee the quality of devices is already in place thanks to the ECITA – we have an audit every six months when a representative goes through our products and we are forbidden to sell our products to under 18s. It’s not law, but it is in our ECITA regulations,’ Dunwoth tells MT.
He blames the EU for not cracking down where it matters.
‘These regulations are applied haphazardly – what needs to happen now is these rules enforced more tightly.’
Who knows how the e-cigarette show-down will go down now the EU is involved. But the worry is that if legislation is pushed through, our ‘vaping’ vendors may be vanquished. And if that's at the cost of 5 million lives, it seems a big sacrifice to make.