Substituting electronic cigarettes for tobacco is beneficial to public health and should be encouraged for current smokers, according to a report from the U.K.’s Royal College of Physicians.
The report, released early Thursday morning in the U.K., rejects several safety arguments marshaled against e-cigarettes in recent years. It argues that smoking tobacco is so deadly that any small potential risk from long-term e-cigarette use is outweighed by their lifesaving effects.
Among the report’s conclusions are that e-cigarettes aren’t a gateway to smoking tobacco for current nonsmokers and that they likely lead tobacco smokers to try to quit regular cigarettes when they otherwise wouldn’t.
“This report lays to rest almost all of the concerns over these products, and concludes that, with sensible regulation, electronic cigarettes have the potential to make a major contribution towards preventing the premature death, disease and social inequalities in health that smoking currently causes in the U.K.,” said John Britton, director of the U.K. Center for Tobacco & Alcohol Studies at the University of Nottingham, who chaired the panel responsible for the report.
The report comes at a critical time for the e-cigarette industry, whose sales have fallen sharply in recent months. Confusion over the safety and health effects of the devices has contributed to a 6.2% decline in sales in the U.S. for the year ended March 26, according to Nielsen data cited by Wells Fargo.
E-cigarette advocates are hoping the report by the Royal College of Physicians is as influential as the health body’s 1962 report on cigarettes. It was among the first to identify the health harms of smoking and preceded the U.S. Surgeon General’s report on smoking and health by two years.
“This is a game changer,” said David Sweanor, a tobacco-control expert and adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa. He said confusion over the health consequences of e-cigarettes has “scared away a lot of investment and scared away a lot of consumers. We now have a very authoritative overview of the actual evidence [on e-cigarettes] that will inform policy.”
Most researchers have agreed for years that e-cigarettes are less harmful than cigarettes because they don’t combust and release carcinogens like traditional smokes, but the long-term effects of using the devices remains largely unknown.
In the midst of that vacuum, antitobacco groups like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids have raised concerns about e-cigarettes being a potential gateway to smoking. There also have been studies showing the devices release cancer-causing formaldehyde.
U.S. public-health officials have fed some consumer fears. The state of California called e-cigarettes a public-health risk and last year started an advertising campaign warning of the harms of using the devices. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this year reported that seven in 10 youth have been exposed to e-cig advertising and raised concerns that the e-cig industry could hook youth the same way the tobacco industry did decades ago.
The Royal College of Physicians report comes as the U.S. government continues to consider how it will regulate e-cigarette. The Food and Drug Administration in 2014 proposed a rule that would give it oversight of e-cigarettes and require federal approval for nearly all e-cig devices and liquid-nicotine products. The rule is still being reviewed and hasn’t been finalized.
U.S. e-cigarette producers and vape shops have said that the rules would put many of them out of business, because the cost of device approval is expected to be in the range of $2 million to $10 million. Most big tobacco companies would be able to cover those costs, and it isn’t expected to be as problematic for Reynolds American Inc.’s Vuse, Altria Group Inc.’s MarkTen, Imperial Brands PLC’s Blu or Japan Tobacco Inc.’s Logic e-cigarette brands.
The global e-cigarette industry is estimated to be worth about $9.8 billion, with the U.S. industry accounting for about $5.2 billion of that, according to Euromonitor International.