A new study has found that government policy documents often portray e-cigarettes in a negative light, with the bad rap having direct consequences on health advocates’ ability to incorporate vaping products into national tobacco harm reduction strategies.
On the market now for more than a decade, e-cigarettes have well established themselves in contemporary culture, making up an $8-billion (US) industry worldwide in 2015 and projected to reach $27.7 billion globally by the year 2022.
As an alternative to tobacco smoking, vaping has been shown to be less harmful, as e-cigarette uses are exposed to much lower levels of toxic and cancer-causing substances than tobacco smokers. The lower health risk has prompted health care advocates to support the use of e-cigarette products as smoking cessation aids.
Yet despite the evidence, policy reports tend to characterize e-cigarettes as a hazardous product, a dangerous attraction for youth and a potential gateway to tobacco smoking. Researchers from the Centre for Addictions Research of British Columbia in Victoria, BC, and the Cancer Council Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, looked at the health claims on e-cigarettes contained in government documents from four regions — Australia, Canada, the United States and the European Union — and found that e-cigarettes were consistently portrayed as a threat and an unsafe product.
In the majority of cases, researchers found that the general storyline involved a villain (e-cigarette devices and e-cigarette manufacturers) who threatened the victims (vapour device users, youth in general, and even tobacco control groups) to the potential detriment of society as a whole.
A recommendation report from the Queensland Department of Health in Australia, for example, was found to contain eight different accounts of how e-cigarettes pose a threat to public health and described seven different victims, including relatively inconsequential ones such as bystanders exposed to e-cigarette vapours and children potentially poisoned from leaking e-cigarette devices.
The researchers see the over-representation of e-cigarettes as threats to be damaging to tobacco cessation efforts. “To date, the debate over vapour devices in the regulatory arena has been heavily slanted to claims of risk and harm, as shown in the four jurisdictions examined here,” say the study’s authors. “So long as the narratives in the state arena about vapour devices are only stories of threats, any potential opportunity vapour devices may offer for tobacco harm reduction is automatically lost.”
Indeed, in Australia’s case, the country has an outright ban of e-cigarettes, making it illegal to purchase the nicotine packages used in vaping products. The decision has been criticized by health experts who say that it takes a prime tool for tobacco reduction out of their hands, one which could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives.
“This is a much safer alternative to tobacco – the most lethal consumer product ever invented. To ban [nicotine in e-cigarettes] is unethical and unscientific,” says Dr. Colin Mendelsohn, associate professor at the University of New South Wales and one of the critics of Australia’s new legislation, to the Sydney Morning Herald.
The new study is published in the journal The International Journal of Drug Policy.