* Concern that UN agency sees e-cigarettes as "threat"
* Classification as tobacco products would curb use
* Scientists say e-cigarettes "part of solution" to smoking
* Critics say safety uncertain, risk of fuelling addiction
By Ben Hirschler
LONDON, May 29 A group of 53 leading scientists
has warned the World Health Organisation not to classify
e-cigarettes as tobacco products, arguing that doing so would
jeopardise a major opportunity to slash disease and deaths
caused by smoking.
The UN agency, which is currently assessing its position on
the matter, has previously indicated it would favour applying
similar restrictions to all nicotine-containing products.
In an open letter to WHO Director General Margaret Chan, the
scientists from Europe, North America, Asia and Australia argued
that low-risk products like e-cigarettes were "part of the
solution" in the fight against smoking, not part of the problem.
"These products could be among the most significant health
innovations of the 21st century - perhaps saving hundreds of
millions of lives. The urge to control and suppress them as
tobacco products should be resisted," the experts wrote.
Leaked documents from a meeting last November suggest the
WHO views e-cigarettes as a "threat" and wants them classified
the same way as regular tobacco products under the Framework
Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). (link.reuters.com/muq69v)
That has set alarm bells ringing among a number of medical
experts - and in the booming e-cigarette industry. A total of
178 countries are parties to the international convention and
are obliged to implement its measures, with the United States
the one notable non-signatory.
A move to classify e-cigarettes alongside regular cigarettes
would push countries into taking similar tough measures to
restrict demand, including raising taxes, banning advertising,
introducing health warnings and curbing use in public places.
Uptake of electronic cigarettes, which use battery-powered
cartridges to produce a nicotine-laced inhalable vapour, has
rocketed in the last two years and analysts estimate the
industry had worldwide sales of some $3 billion in 2013.
But the devices are controversial. Because they are so new
there is a lack of long-term scientific evidence to support
their safety and some fear they could be "gateway" products to
nicotine addiction and tobacco smoking - though the scientists
said they were "unaware of any credible evidence that supports
BIG TOBACCO BACKS SCIENTISTS
For tobacco companies seeking to offset the decline in
traditional smoking, investment in e-cigarettes was an obvious
choice and all the major players now have a presence, prompting
Big Tobacco to line up behind scientists on this occasion.
Kingsley Wheaton, director of corporate and regulatory
affairs at British American Tobacco, said classifying
e-cigarettes as tobacco products would mean smokers find it
harder to access a less risky alternative.
The Geneva-based WHO said its position on e-cigarettes was
still in flux ahead of a key meeting on the FCTC scheduled for
October 13-18 in Moscow, where proposed regulations will be
"At this point the only thing I can say is that we are
elaborating these regulations and they will soon be available to
you," Armando Peruga, programme manager for the WHO's Tobacco
Free Initiative told reporters this week.
Gerry Stimson, emeritus professor at Imperial College London
and one of the organisers of the letter to Chan, told Reuters
that the WHO's position was "bizarre" and its stance on
e-cigarettes was harsher than that of regulators in Europe and
the United States.
"We want to make sufficient noise now before things get too
set in stone," he said.
(Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva, editing by David