As a functionary body of the United Nations, the World Health Organization (WHO) exerts substantial influence in the making of health and medical policies across the globe. In that context, its vehement rejection of electronic cigarettes as “devices [which] pose threats to public health” comes as a surprise. An electronic cigarette (e-cigarette) or electronic nicotine delivery system (ENDS) is a battery operated device which simulates the experience of tobacco smoking without the inhalation of smoke. This device which is being reckoned as an alternative of conventional cigarettes emits vaporized nicotine which is inhaled by the user. The WHO’s outlook could prompt policymakers to ignore the possible health benefits of e-cigarettes in favor of stiffer regulations such as bans on indoor use, marketing, and sales to minors. The Organization has also expressed its fears about the rising concentration of the electronic cigarette market in the hands of the Big Tobacco. It is also alarmed by the rising popularity of these devices amongst teenagers.
As a response to the recommendations of the WHO, the devices have been banned by Transport for London (TfL) across the entire public transport network. Additionally, restaurants such as Starbucks, Caffe Nero, All Bar One, Nicholson’s pubs and KFC have decided to follow suit by prohibiting the use of electronic cigarettes in their branches. This undermines one of the principal advantages electronic cigarettes claim to have over traditional cigarettes, i.e., their ability to be used indoors or in public spaces without the danger of passive smoking. The WHO continues to regard electronic cigarettes as products unsafe and inept for consumption by people who wish to quit smoking while organizations such as the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) have signaled towards electronic cigarettes being less harmful than tobacco.
While some health agencies have showed their support to the Organization’s stance on electronic cigarettes, a number of experts and organizations have termed the WHO’s approach as “misleading” with the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies (UKCTAS) going so far as to use the word “alarmist” to describe the Organization’s criticism of the devices. Cancer Research UK which is funding a research into electronic cigarette consumption to arrive at a more informed verdict has indicated that ”e-cigarettes may have a role in helping people to quit smoking” even though “the evidence for their effectiveness is so far limited.” In light of the diversity that exists in the current knowledge about electronic cigarettes, health experts have urged the WHO to take a more proportionate, appropriate and fair stance on electronic cigarettes as a premature ban of these devices could discourage smokers from embracing a healthier alternative to tobacco.
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