It’s a typical scene in many UK bars and restaurants. While rain lashes down, smokers shiver outside under shelters or in doorways, indulging in a habit that’s illegal indoors.
Inside though, a group of people seem to be flouting the law. They are smoking what appear to be cigarettes, yet don’t have the smell of burning tobacco or ever need putting out.
They are smoking, or rather "vaping," electronic cigarettes - an innovation that’s not only regarded in some quarters as being much healthier than traditional cigarettes, but is inexpensive and legal to use indoors.
Most e-cigs consist of three parts – a battery, a chamber containing a heating element (referred to as an atomiser) and a cartridge containing a filter soaked in liquid, usually made up of nicotine extract, flavourings and propylene glycol, a chemical used in many foodstuffs. It is this that, when heated, produces the "‘smoke’" or vapour.
For smokers or anyone trying to quit, this all sounds too good to be true. And perhaps it is, due to a proposed change in the law which could soon see manufacturers of electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs as they are more commonly known, come under close scrutiny.
Proposals For Regulation Of E-cigsThis month, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), announced proposals to regulate e-cigs, which are currently classed as an unlicensed nicotine containing product, so that they are classed as a medicine. This would mean that any manufacturer/supplier of these products would have to apply to the MHRA for a medicines marketing authorisation, something that at a reported cost of 1.4 million pounds, could prove far too costly for many companies.
As a result, many manufacturers and users of e-cigs are concerned that the pharmaceutical industries could move in and effectively monopolise the market, marketing these products in the same way as nicotine patches, gum and inhalers.
Either way, this leaves consumers in an uncertain position, especially as many have found that e-cigs helped them quit where other methods have failed.
One such person is Jackie, an e-cig user from Hull, who says: “I was a 20 a day smoker for 20 years - I'd tried various methods of quitting then heard about e-cigs and out of pure curiosity bought one. I had an open mind about it - I wasn't really expecting to quit. However, I immediately went from 20 cigarettes a day to three or four, then quit completely. That was nearly five months ago and I'm still amazed at how easy it was for me.”
She’s not alone. A quick look online at one of the many e-cig forums reveals a worldwide network of contented ex-smokers who have finally managed to quit for good. Many report that their health has improved.
But, despite their testimonials, doubts remain in the eyes of some as to the safety of e-cigs and it is this concern which lies at the heart of the MHRA's proposal. Since its development in 2004, there has been little research into the e-cig, largely due to the cost of commissioning scientific tests.
Are E-cigs Safer Than Traditional Cigarettes?Tests that have been carried out, however, suggest that this is a much safer product than traditional cigarettes, with Dr Joel Nitzkin, chair of the Tobacco Control Task Force for the American Association of public health physicians, saying: “We have every reason to believe that the hazard posed by e-cigarettes would be much lower than one percent. So, if the nicotine in e-cigarettes is the same as in prescription nicotine replacement therapy products, we can assume that the hazard posed by e-cigarettes would be much lower than that posed by regular cigarettes."
His views are echoed by some other healthcare experts. Indeed, while the MHRA raises its concerns, one UK-based e-cig company, Intellicig, has recently seen its product made available at every pharmacy in Greece.
The MHRA report states the need for some form of regulation to ensure that e-cigs are a safe product, saying: "We know from work done by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States that laboratory analyses of e-cigarette samples were found to contain carcinogens and toxic chemicals, against which general product safety legislation could not protect. Bringing all current unlicensed NCPs into regulation would eliminate these issues and ensure that smokers had products of the requisite quality, efficacy and safety to eliminate or reduce the harm from smoking."
Choosing The Right E-cig For YouNaturally, there is a bewildering range of e-cigs on the market, many varying wildly in quality and price, so it would seem to be logical that consumers are protected. However, some e-cig manufacturers claim that customer choice would be greatly limited if the product were only available from pharmacies and/or on prescription.
So, with a wide range of products at present to choose from, which one should someone wishing to try e-cigs go for?
For anyone who wants something that looks and feels almost exactly like a cigarette, try the EVOlution from Intellicig, a leading UK manufacturer. Alternatively, for products which take the concept of e-cigs to a more space age level, try the Jantystick (a small silver box) or eGo – a black e-cig resembling a 21st century cigar.
E-cig users are being invited to have their say on the MHRA proposals via its website.
Ultimately, whether e-cigs become an accepted NRT product or not remains to be seen, but many ex-smokers would strongly argue that e-cigs have helped them quit for good where other methods have seen their attempts to kick the habit go up in smoke.