E-cigarette questions still swirl in the air

CONTROVERSIAL: Made to look like real cigarettes, the battery-powered gadgets vaporise chemicals such as liquid nicotine. The mist is inhaled instead of tobacco smoke. Three people were fined for offering e-cigarettes for sale locally via websites.
PHOTO: E-cigarette questions still swirl in the air

SINGAPORE - Electronic cigarettes threw up some smoke and fire yesterday after the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it will propose new regulations for the multi-billion dollar business.

Once finalised, the regulations will mark the first time that the FDA is extending its regulatory authority to include e-cigarettes - including preventing their sale to children.

The ban in Singapore, however, will remain. In response to queries from My Paper yesterday, the authorities said that despite the way the product is being marketed, there is no "rigorous scientific evidence" to show that it is safe or helps one quit smoking.

This, in turn, raised the issue of why cigarettes, which are known to be harmful, are regulated while e-cigarettes, whose qualities are unproven, remain banned.

"We are concerned that e-cigarettes could potentially be a gateway to developing a smoking habit, particularly among the young, as nicotine is addictive," said the Ministry of Health, the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) and Health Promotion Board in a joint statement.

Made to look like real cigarettes, e-cigarettes are battery-powered gadgets that vaporise chemicals such as liquid nicotine. The mist is inhaled instead of tobacco smoke.

On Monday, the HSA revealed that three people were fined for offering e-cigarettes for sale locally via websites.

Experts told My Paper that the ban should remain until studies have proved that the product is safe for use.

According to previous media reports, the e-cigarette industry racked up US$1.5 billion (S$1.9 billion) in sales last year. The product, which is sometimes made to look like a pen or USB memory stick, has been marketed by manufacturers as a safer alternative to cigarette smoking because it has fewer harmful chemicals.

"Smokers could be misled into thinking that it is another form of nicotine patch or gum, which are used as aids to help smokers quit smoking," said senior lecturer Paul Oh of Singapore Polytechnic's Diploma in Nutrition, Health and Wellness.

See Kay Choong, who heads the smoking cessation programme at the National University Hospital, said there has been no data to support the claim that e-cigarettes have "succeeded in improving smoking cessation rates", with recent data even suggesting otherwise.

"Additionally, some electronic cigarettes have been found to contain harmful contaminants, which may have led to reports of lung toxicity," Dr See added.

The controversial product, however, seems to have worked for some smokers.

"Once you've developed the habit, going cold turkey is difficult because, whenever you have a tough day or you have time to kill, you immediately think of having a cigarette," said a 23-year-old who wanted to be known only as Ms Nelson. "If you have an e-cigarette, it helps trick your brain into calming down just by mimicking the action of actually smoking."

Ong Kian Chung, a specialist in respiratory medicine at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, said that while a complete ban may encourage smuggling, regulation required resources. The question was whether this was worthwhile.

E-cigarettes are also prohibited in places such as Taiwan, Thailand and Brazil.

kcarolyn@sph.com.sg


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