E-cigarettes are an “important” tool in reducing the number of avoidable deaths from smoking according to experts from the Royal College of Physicians.
The RCP report Nicotine without smoke calls for e-cigarettes, to be promoted “as widely as possible” along with nicotine replacement therapy and other non-tobacco nicotine products as a substitute for smoking to the nine million smokers in the UK.
Writing in the British Medical Journal the team, led by Professor John Britton, said that e-cigarettes “offer the potential to radically reduce harm from smoking in our society. This is an opportunity that should be managed, and taken.”
Dr Tim Ballard, the vice chairman of the Royal College of GPs
said: “The College recognises e-cigarettes as a safer alternative to cigarettes and we welcome the comprehensive report, which should increase the confidence of GPs and our teams as we help our patients to quit smoking in order to improve their long term health.
“However, moving forward we would be looking for clear evidence that making e-cigarettes available on prescription as part of a wider smoking cessation scheme is a wise use of both scant NHS funds and GP practice resources, before the College could get behind it.”
The RCP said nicotine causes little harm but it is the carcinogens, carbon monoxide and other toxins in tobacco smoke which kill smokers.
“Health harm from smoking can be avoided by replacing cigarettes with a less toxic source of nicotine,” they said.
The report stated that e-cigarettes are unlikely to be harmless and long term use could increase the risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and other long-term conditions.
However the hazard from the long-term use of e-cigarettes is unlikely to exceed 5% of the harm from smoking tobacco, it said.
Despite fears that e-cigarettes would attract young people to try nicotine or renormalises smoking as an acceptable habit, they said there was little evidence this was happening.
Adults using e-cigarettes are mainly ex or current smokers, who are using them as a way to cut down on their habit, the report said.
The authors also concluded that the reduction in the number of smokers using smoking cessation was more likely to be due to cuts in smoking cessation and anti-smoking campaigns, than the availability of e-cigarettes.
The authors said the “continued aggressive marketing of cigarettes” showed the tobacco industry had “no serious interest in reducing the harm it causes”. It was likely to try to exploit e-cigarettes but advertising restrictions coming into force in May could alleviate concerns.
The authors said monitoring of health impacts should continue.
“It is also important that health professionals communicate the risks and benefits of electronic and tobacco cigarettes to smokers.”