The arrival of electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs as they are more commonly called, was greeted positively when they were first launched around ten years ago. They were seen as the first viable alternative to tobacco for nicotine delivery to the body and more socially acceptable than nicotine patches or chewing gum.
Because e-cigs use mainly just pure nicotine liquid they were regarded as a better alternative to traditional cigarettes even though they contain other chemicals.
This concept has prevailed for many years, but now it seems that perceptions are changing following the highly published results of a number of studies and research projects which claim that e-cigs are not so benign after all.
Strangely, the timing of these negative claims appears to have coincided with the entry of “Big Tobacco” into the e-cigs market. It had been generally assumed that the decision of the major tobacco companies was based on the precept “if you can’t beat them, join them.”
A cynical view of this development is that the tobacco companies were seeking market domination in order to either control the market, or perhaps destroy it someday, thus leaving traditional cigarettes as the main source of nicotine once again. As conspiracy theories go, this one was rather extreme and did not gain much traction in the media.
The medical disaster that tobacco created dates back centuries but it was only recognized in recent decades. There is virtually no dispute that tobacco, and the chemicals added to it, are carcinogenic and responsible for a whole range of illnesses including cancer and heart disease.
Nevertheless, almost 20 percent of US the population (42 million people) are still hooked on tobacco as the prime source of their nicotine fix. On the other hand, the growth of the e-cigarette market has been extraordinary. The retail sales value of e-cigarettes worldwide for 2013 was $2.5 billion. Wells Fargo estimates that figure will top $10 billion by 2017 and Bloomberg projects that sales will exceed those of traditional cigarettes by 2047.
Given these kinds of numbers, public health researchers appear to have decided that now is the time to examine the product more closely. The problem is that the research, such as it is, has produced a mass of conflicting results. Given the standard media dictum that “bad news sells papers”, it has chosen to emphasize negative reports and play down those which are positive.
This has stimulated the electronic cigarette industry to respond and take action against what it says are the misleading claims about the effect of e-cigs on health. In February 2015, a group called ‘The Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association’ (SFATA) held a fund raising event in California and raised an impressive $110,000.
The group is part of a global effort to confront critics and challenge legislation designed to clamp down on the use of electronic cigarettes. Over the next few months SFATA intends to hold further events to increase the “Fighting Fund”.
Following the successful outcome of the event, Stefan Didak, co-President of the Northern California SFATA, ominously tweeted the words “fear us”. He alleged that there had been a spate of “disinformation” from scientists and public health authorities against e-cigs. He told Mirror Online that
Several state funded tobacco control coalitions have taken their approach too far and crossed a few lines that we are going to have examined by lawyers. Misleading arguments can and will end up in court in front of a judge.
He threatened specific litigation against the worst offenders who knowingly engaged in publishing misleading information.
The claims of SFATA have received support from an unexpected source. Professor Robert West, who works in University College London’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, said that researchers behind studies showing the positive health implications of e-cigs often found it difficult to publish their work. He said:
Bad studies on e-cigarettes are easy to do and easy to get into top journals, which are hungry for publicity. Good studies are hard to do and are difficult to get into top journals if they do not lead to scare stories.
The electronic cigarette companies have decided that “enough is enough” and are determined to mount an aggressive campaign to fight back. It will be interesting to see how the media and “Big Tobacco” respond.