While several heavyweight health organisations including the WHO feel that endorsing e-cigarettes is premature when not enough is known about their effects, some medical experts think the electronic devices are potential life-savers.

One such e-cigarette proponent is Dr Derek Yach, Executive Director of the Vitality Institute and one of the world’s leading anti-tobacco advocates.

Speaking at a media lunch hosted by the Electronic-cigarette Association of South Africa (EASA) in Cape Town on 2 June 2015, Yach expressed the view that, given the undisputed ravages of tobacco use on human health, any potential negative impacts of e-cigarettes are likely to pale by comparison, and that doctors should be recommending them to patients as an important smoking cessation tool.

“My concern, when tobacco is claiming 6 million lives a year, is the consequence of not using e-cigarettes,” said Yach, who helped develop the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

Yach also cautioned against regulating the sale and use of e-cigarettes too strictly, for example only allowing the devices to be sold in pharmacies. South Africa may well soon see tighter control of e-cigarettes: Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has announced that he intends to include e-cigarettes within the remit of the Tobacco Products Control Amendment Act.

Nicotine and tar tend to be linked in public perception (and in that of many doctors), said Yach, but it is important that they be distinguished from each other: while nicotine is the addictive substance in cigarettes, the tar they contain is that which is associated with tobacco’s most serious health impacts.

E-cigarettes supply nicotine to the user in vapour form and are thus a form of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), which also includes nicotine gum and patches. Unlike cigarettes, these products are purported to be much safer because they are free of tar.

“There’s a growing group of medical experts who feel that, on balance, a product that takes out the tar must be better,” said Yach.

“Of these products, e-cigarettes are a good choice. Research shows that generally smokers trying to quit prefer their NRT in e-cigarette form. A recent large study also showed that e-cigarettes are probably as good as or better than financial incentives for quitting smoking.”

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