The United Kingdom's public health authority recently issued a report that said e-cigarettes are not only 95 per cent less harmful than regular cigarettes, but also have the potential to help smokers quit.
But despite this stand by Public Health England (PHE), Singapore's Ministry of Health (MOH) is sticking by its view that e-cigarettes are dangerous and will remain illegal.
In response to queries by The New Paper, an MOH spokesman said that the ban on e-cigarettes in Singapore, which will take effect from Dec 15, "takes a high precautionary level of protection for the public's health''.
According to MOH, the vapour from e-cigarettes still contains cancer-causing agents, which pose a real risk to both users and bystanders.
"Additionally, we remain concerned that e-cigarettes could attract and harm a large number of new users (who may not necessarily be current smokers), get them addicted to nicotine, and hence potentially serve as a gateway to developing a smoking habit, particularly among our young," the spokesman added.
The PHE finding suggests there is no evidence that e-cigarettes are acting as a gateway to smoking for children and non-smokers. In fact, the study suggests that the opposite is happening - e-cigarettes may be contributing to falling smoking rates among adults and young people.
The PHE study was released on Aug 19 and led by academics from King's College London and Queen Mary University of London.
Its findings have not only been challenged by MOH, but also departs from those of other health bodies.
In 2014, the World Health Organisation released a report that backed stricter regulations for e-cigarettes and supported a ban on their use indoors and sale to minors.
Another recent study by researchers from the University of Southern California suggests that teens who tried electronic cigarettes might be more than twice as likely to move on to smoking conventional cigarettes.
Moreover, a report published on Aug 29 in medical journal The Lancet has cast some doubt about PHE's assertion that e-cigarettes are 95 per cent less harmful.
This claim, according to The Lancet, originated from a 2014 study in which at least three of its 11 authors had roles in the e-cigarette industry, with one of them having served as a consultant to e-cigarette distributor Arbi Group Srl.
This raises questions about PHE's conclusions. The Lancet says PHE has "fallen short of its mission" to "protect and improve the nation's health and well-being" by relying on an "extraordinarily flimsy foundation".
Oncologist Dr Wong Seng Weng says that e-cigarettes are still largely misunderstood.
He said: "The discussion is that there is less harm, but some research says that fumes might be carcinogenic. There is not enough data to be safe."
As for the assertion that e-cigarettes can help smokers quit, Dr Leong Choon Kit, a family physician from Mission Medical Clinic, said: "It does not solve the underlying problem of addiction. It's like taking the easy way out without getting to the root."
Managing director at MW Medical Centre, Dr Madeleine Chew, agreed with this.
"Nicotine creates craving and dependence, which are not desirable traits in human beings," she said.
However, at least one medical expert said that the situation is not so simple, as there is a chance that e-cigarettes could help people curb their tobacco addiction.
Psychiatrist Associate Professor Munidasa Winslow said: "Unfortunately both approaches are true. It can be a gateway to actual smoking, but it does help some with cigarette or tobacco addiction to stop or reduce their use. Unfortunately the jury is still out on whether there is any real benefit from using e-cigarettes."
It is an offence to import, distribute or sell e-cigarettes here.
Since 2011, the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) has prosecuted 10 people for selling such products.
The penalty is a fine of up to $5,000 for a first offence and a fine of up to $10,000 for a second or subsequent offence on each count.
Anyone with information on the illegal import, distribution or sales of e-cigarettes can call the HSA's Tobacco Regulation Branch on 6684-2036 or 6684-2037.
This article was first published on August 29, 2015.
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