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Scientists say e-cigarettes could save millions of lives, warn against strong regulation

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The World Health Organization is interested in regulating e-cigarettes like all other tobacco products, but an international group of over 50 researchers is hoping to change its mind. The group has sent it a letter arguing that placing strong regulations on e-cigarettes would harm the opportunity for them to save millions of smokers' lives by removing the ill effects of traditional cigarettes.

""We would miss out on a major opportunity to reduce smoke-related deaths.For the WHO to suggest that e-cigarettes are as risky as other tobacco products would send an erroneous and bleak message to the millions of current e-cigarette users who have used them to quit smoking," Robert West, a University College London researcher and a signatory of the letter, says in a statement. "It would discourage smokers from trying them and we would miss out on a major opportunity to reduce smoke-related deaths globally."

The researchers believe that the 1.3 billion people worldwide who current smoke would do far less harm to their health by using e-cigarettes or other vaporizers, which deliver nicotine but don't include tobacco. The jury is still out on the health effects of these cigarette alternatives, so for now the researchers just say that the WHO should ensure that it bases its policy on sound data.

This October, the WHO will meet to discuss the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, and leaked documents suggest that regulations for e-cigarettes are on the agenda. Were e-cigarette regulations to be included in a future version of the treaty, all of its parties — currently 178 countries — would be required to work toward upholding its goals. Notably, the United States has signed the treaty but not ratified it.

It's a United Nations' goal to reduce the prevalence of smoking, so the researchers argue that the WHO would actually be working against its parent organization's goal by pushing back against e-cigarettes. It agrees that any use of nicotine is a negative, but it says e-cigarettes serve as a much better option.

"Even though most of us would prefer people to quit smoking and using nicotine altogether," the researchers write, "experience suggests that many smokers cannot or choose not to give up nicotine and will continue to smoke if there is no safer alternative available that is acceptable to them."

The researchers come from a variety of institutions, but include people who work at universities, drug study centers, and general medical associations — some even previously working with the WHO itself. Beyond limiting regulation on e-cigarettes, they argue that regulation on similar products should be proportionate to their ill health effects, with respect to the benefits that smokers of actual cigarettes could receive from making the switch.