Puff love: The jury is still out on whether vaping is safer than smoking tobacco cigarettes. Picture: REUTERS
Puff love: The jury is still out on whether vaping is safer than smoking tobacco cigarettes. Picture: REUTERS

The jury is still out on whether vaping is safer than smoking cigarettes and there is uncertainty on how it should be regulated, it emerged at a recent panel discussion with leading experts.

The Vapour Product Association says vaping is up to 95% safer than cigarettes and is more effective in helping people to quit smoking than nicotine replacement therapy.

Africa Harm Reduction Alliance co-founder Dr Melon Human says while one in every two smokers is likely to die as a result of tobacco use, an evidence review carried out by Public Health England in 2015 found that e-cigarettes are less harmful than tobacco.

The product association says 38% of users claim e-cigarettes helped them to stop smoking entirely, while 25% of users report that they reduced the amount they smoked.

Because e-cigarettes contain no tar and can be used with liquids containing less nicotine than cigarettes, logic dictates that they must be safer.

However, pulmonologist Dr Richard van Zyl-Smit says it is "not that difficult to be safer than tobacco". He points out that there is limited data on vaping available in SA to test the claims of people selling such products.

Nicotine is the addictive element in tobacco and remains addictive in the vaping liquids. Van Zyl-Smit says its effects range from amplified mucous production in the lungs, a surge in blood pressure and an alteration in immune functions.

He says e-cigarettes may be potentially safer for those who already smoke, but not for adolescents or new smokers.

Life insurance companies still consider e-cigarette users to be smokers and load their premiums accordingly.

Van Zyl-Smit warns that marketing e-cigarettes as a safer product makes them more attractive to young people.

If his children wanted to experiment with smoking, he would rather they tried tobacco products because they would be more likely to be put off by the taste, but would probably enjoy flavoured e-cigarettes — not that he wants them to try either.

Human says the danger of over-regulating e-cigarettes is the potential to create a "protective wall" around the tobacco industry, protecting cigarettes from competition.

Contesting claims

Because vaporisers are not technically nicotine replacement therapies, it would be difficult to regulate them in the same way.

Human says there are contesting claims about the health benefits of vaping, including that they help people to stop smoking altogether. The use of vaporisers in public spaces and the advertising, promotion and sponsorship of these products is still under public and scientific scrutiny in SA prior to the government drafting regulations for the industry.

However, according to a 2014 World Health Organisation survey, the sale of electronic nicotine delivery systems has been banned in 13 of the 59 countries that regulate them. However, they are still available in those countries through illicit trade and internet sales.

Health Professions Council of SA president Dr Kgosi Letlape says the issue of access is critical, especially for people in
low-income groups.

He says SA needs alternatives to smoking that are commercially competitive to counterfeit cigarettes, so regulation needs to consider the harm-reduction vaping offers.

One of SA’s most recognisable e-cigarette brands, Twisp, markets itself as premium yet affordable, with each device retailing at between R600 and R1,200 and refills lasting up to three months.

A packet of cigarettes costs about R45 on average and the price will probably increase after Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan reveals new sin taxes in February’s budget.

Twisp launched in 2011 and sold its products at two stalls in malls. In 2012, the business expanded and the company now has more than 300 employees and 63 stalls across the country.

Their products are also stocked in more than 1,600 outlets including Clicks, Dischem and Pick n Pay, where it makes up to 30% of smoking products at some outlets.

"The key to success is that we have our own design teams who refine our product. Our flavours are manufactured locally, so we know exactly what the purity and quality standards are and our stalls serve as service centres because it is a technology product and people want to have face-to-face contact when they have technical problems," says Twisp CEO Nathan Smith.

He says when the e-cigarette phenomenon first came onto the scene, many chancers flooded the market with low-quality products. He believes it is crucial for regulation to be introduced by the government to create industry standards.

Smith says Twisp supports regulation of e-cigarette and vaping products as they already self-regulate and test devices to comply to international standards. The company is intent on safeguarding consumers.

"We don’t have people in SA whose teeth get blown up by a battery. Our aim is to have a safe product for smokers," he says.

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