There is no such thing as a less harmful e-cigarette, health experts say

24 November 2019
Gemma Holliani Cahya

For the past few years, cigarette companies have introduced a new form of nicotine consumption that they say is less harmful, smoke free and will save millions of lives from smoking-related disease caused by conventional cigarettes.

However, in a discussion on Friday held by the Public Health Scholars Association (IAKMI), public experts condemned the move, calling it “just another business” for the industries.

“The campaign is so ‘noble’ that it makes people confused whether cigarette companies are now really pro-health. […] But multinational cigarette industries never really mean to stop selling cigarettes. Instead, it is just another business expansion for them by having additional business with the next generation of products,” Widyastuti Soerojo of the IAKMI said.

A recent survey by the Jakarta Residents Forum (FAKTA) found that from 2015 to 2019 there were 57 cigarette brand registrations, 41 of which were conventional cigarettes and 16 were e-cigarettes, of which six were heated tobacco products and 10 were electronic nicotine delivery systems.

“This fact shows that cigarette industries have no intention to stop selling their conventional cigarettes. The e-cigarettes, the new-generation products, are merely a development to reap greater profits. There is no intention to protect people’s health,” Widyastuti said.

As an example, IAKMI shows how tobacco giant Philip Morris International launched a foundation called a Smoke-Free World in Septermber 2017, which reportedly encouraged people to change to what they say is a better and safer alternative to smoking: e-cigarettes.

Widyastuti said the campaign was not tobacco or nicotine free because it was only free from the smoke of a lit cigarette. It still contained nicotine and tobacco.

E-cigarettes exist in two forms: heated tobacco products and electronic nicotine delivery systems.

“But is less harm safe? Is falling from tenth floor of a building is better than falling from the twentieth floor? It’s not like that right? Tobacco control must be zero tobacco and nicotine, not simply harm reduction,” she said.

Meanwhile, in the discussion, Agus Sujatno of the Indonesian Consumers Foundation (YLKI) said the foundation urged the government to immediately ban any e-cigarette-related products as they did not fulfill the four basic rights of consumers: to safety, to be informed, to choose and to be heard.

Agus said there is little to no information about the products, so they should be considered illegal products.

“We have to use the precautionary principles to deal with it, before we have the evidence from the health field that these products are safe and will not have a negative impact on those who consume them. We have to ban them first from being distributed,” Agus said.

The absence of comprehensive information and regulations from credible sources also makes it difficult for teachers and parents to protect children from the harm the products could bring.

“There is no clear information about it, so some junior high school teachers told me that they did not know at first that their students brought e-cigarettes to school. The students would say that they were flash drive memory sticks or computer devices,” Lisda Sundari said, director of the Lentera Anak Foundation, a child protection organization.

“Teachers have the authority to protect their students, but they cannot do it because they don’t have information about it. To make it worse, with all the campaigns, our children believe that e-cigarettes are totally safe for them. Without regulation and information from the government, we cannot do anything about this condition,” she added.

Widyastuti from IAKMI added there was a worrying global trend in the use of e-cigarettes, especially among young people. After several e-cigarette smokers from the United states suffered mysterious lung illnesses, the Philippines and Singapore have taken bold measures to ban the e-cigarettes.

On Friday, Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto, said he did not want to make a rash decision to ban the e-cigarettes.

“We will listen to all of the people’s aspirations on this issue. Don’t just justify something that we don’t really know,” he said.

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