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Noose tightening on e-cigarettes

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The crackdown on e-cigarettes is intensifying amid alarm that teenagers are being lured into using the controversial devices despite uncertainty about their safety and long-term effects on health.

The Australian Capital Territory is considering joining Queensland in subjecting e-cigarettes to the same laws and regulations as tobacco products, making it illegal to sell them to people younger than 18 years.

Health authorities worldwide have been caught flat-footed by the rapid spread of e-cigarettes – battery operated devices that are tobacco-free and instead heat solutions to produce a vapour that users inhale.

They are often promoted as an aid to giving up smoking, though such claims are yet to be substantiated and the World Health Organisation has called for strict regulation around their use amid uncertainty about their health effects.

While the sale of e-cigarettes containing nicotine is banned in Australia, in most states there are no restrictions on the availability and use of non-nicotine versions, and their ready availability online has made it difficult for authorities to police.

The ACT Government is considering restrictions on the promotion of e-cigarettes and a ban on their use in smoke-free public places and around children.

This follows Queensland’s move to become the first State to subject e-cigarettes to the same laws as tobacco products, a ruling by a Western Australian court earlier this year that effectively banned the sale of e-cigarettes in that State, and South Australia’s decision to prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes that resemble tobacco products.

Despite these moves, there is anecdotal evidence that e-cigarette use is growing fast, and public health experts in Victoria have accused tobacco companies of targeting children by marketing lolly-flavoured e-cigarettes.

Quit Victoria tobacco control policy manager Kylie Lindorff told The Age that the sale of e-cigarettes, often colourful and lolly-flavoured, was completely unregulated as long as they did not contain caffeine, meaning children could buy them.

“We’re incredibly concerned about that,” Ms Lindorff told The Age. “We’d like to see the sale of these products banned outright.”

Earlier this year, public health experts worldwide made a joint appeal to the World Health Organisation to ignore tobacco industry claims about e-cigarettes and instead focus on the evidence in assessing their health implications.

Leading Australian public health advocates Professor Stephen Leeder, Professor Alan Lopez, Professor Ian Olver, Professor Mike Daube, Professor Simon Chapman and Associate Professor Freddy Sitas were among 129 international public health physicians and campaigners who wrote to WHO Director General Dr Margaret Chan in support of the organisation’s evidence-based approach to electronic nicotine delivery systems.

Promoters claim the technology provides a safe alternative to tobacco products and is an aid in kicking the smoking habit, and tobacco companies have quickly into the e-cigarette market.

But there is insufficient evidence so far to substantiate these claims.

A study published in the Society for the Study of Addiction journal questioned calls for e-cigarettes (EC) to be regulated as strictly as conventional cigarettes are finding that allowing e-cigarettes to compete with cigarettes in the marketplace might actually decrease smoking-related illness and deaths.

But doubt has been cast on this conclusion by a study of 1074 New York cancer patients who smoked which found that those using e-cigarettes were just as likely to be smoking after a year as those who did not use them, and that seven-day abstinence rates were virtually the same for both groups.

The National Health and Medical Research Council is funding a clinical trial to investigate whether or not e-cigarettes are an aid to quitting smoking.

Adrian Rollins