Electronic Cigarettes – an aid to quit or a new harmful lifestyle choice?

Alex Mackinnon 160 x 160By Alex MacKinnon, RPS Director for Scotland

As a pharmacist, I must admit to being really concerned about the way the marketing of e-cigarettes is starting to explode around me. The growth in their sale seems to be rising exponentially with associated marketing spend. New manufacturers are appearing as they recognise a commercial opportunity.

In 2005, the Smoking Health and Social Care (Scotland) Act banned smoking in public places, probably one of the most significant public health measures since the introduction of vaccination. Scotland now also has one of the strongest tobacco display bans in the world with products being screened off from public view in large retailers and a clear timeline for small retailers to comply. But oh dear, what are we now substituting into the equation?

We have a product which can be used as an alternative to help people stop smoking. Fine, don’t have a problem with that, but it should be regulated and pharmacists as health professionals have a big role to play here.

As a non smoker, I am becoming increasingly concerned. In my daily walk from the bus station to the office, e–cigarettes are everywhere – in the grocery, in the newsagent and even in stand-alone sales units in the shopping mall. Something that is supposed to be an aid to stopping smoking is now being freely advertised as a glamorous lifestyle choice with evocative images used in advertising. ‘Vaping’ is rapidly becoming king.

These products, advertised as enabling the enjoyment of some of the pleasures of smoking where smoking has been banned, are promoted and glamorised to our youth and I am concerned that this could grow new users. ‘Vaping’ is a word that could soon be in the dictionary. The product innovation, marketing hype, and flashy promotion has almost taken my breath away.

2016 is too late

There is evidence that young people exposed to the promotion of cigarettes are more likely to try smoking. There is nothing to suggest that e-cigarettes will be any different.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency will not bring these products into regulation until 2016. Judging by the current rate of their uptake as a lifestyle choice that could be far too late. I believe the sale and supply of e-cigarettes needs to be brought under legislative control as soon as possible.

As a health professional, I look on in disbelief at what is happening here and must admit to feeling a bit powerless in the wake of this promotional tidal wave. I’ve seen the quote from the tobacco industry that says, “Business objectives and public heath objectives can be aligned for best outcome.” I am afraid that I am really struggling to see how the aggressive advertising of e-cigarettes has anything to do with harm reduction.

Most of these products contain nicotine, which is well known for its vasoconstrictor effects, affecting peripheral circulation, blood pressure, increasing heart and respiration rates and causing sleep disturbances. Most importantly it is highly addictive! The intense advertising of e-cigarettes may encourage non smokers towards this highly addictive drug and then on to smoking tobacco.

A recent Stirling University study highlighted the use of celebrity endorsements and social media to attract young people to use e-cigarettes and we are seeing a plethora of online promotions, mobile phone apps, group discount vouchers and TV, billboard, bus, computer games and magazine advertising being used. Sport sponsorship also features. An e-cigarette advert recently appeared in a children’s electronic game.

Some pharmacies are already selling e-cigarettes and I really worry how this will sit with the profession, our professional healthcare colleagues and indeed the public.

It feels like the ‘Wild West’ has returned and it’s high noon and I would say the town needs a sheriff before these new high tech products produce the next generation of smokers.