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Financial Times and Scientific American weigh in

Financial Times and Scientific American weigh in

This week two major publications, both leaders in their respective spheres, have come out with articles surveying the electronic cigarette phenomenon, The Financial Times and Scientific American.

Neither article presents much of anything that will come as a surprise to those familiar with the product and the controversies swirling around it.

But their overviews afford us a chance to assess the attitudes of the public at this moment, particularly the attitudes of the segments of the public that these publications represent. The Financial Times comes closer to getting it right. The FT article, by Emma Jacobs and Duncan Robinson, begins by recounting the story of pioneering e-cig company Gamucci and its founders Umer Sheikh and his brother Taz. They took Hon Lik's basic invention, marketed through Chinese company Ruyan ("like smoking") and marketed it in the UK and elsewhere in the West after a few basic changes in technology.

Next we flash back to Herbert Gilbert's original invention in 1963, which never got off the ground as a successfully marketed product. The article takes a look at the "muscling in" on the product by big tobacco, and covers the current uneasy relationship between Big Tobacco's e-cigs and those fielded by small start-ups. While some of the smaller companies complain about "aggressive tactics", others may hope to be bought out, says FT, since the payoff would be substantial. "Gamucci declines to comment on whether it has been targeted but says that remaining independent for a few more years would boost its sale price," according to FT.

Turning to the debate among health advocacy groups, Jacobs and Robinson cover the debates between spokespersons of Corporate Accountability International (CAI) such as John Stewart, who emphasizes Big Tobacco's interest in promoting "dual use" and in "re-glamorizing" smoking, and harm reduction proponents like Clive Bates, founder of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), who is critical of the unsupported claim that e-cig use is a gateway to smoking.

Toward the end of the FT article, Jacobs and Robinson cover the vociferous participation of vapers themselves in the debate. This is one of the most significant new developments in the evolution of this controversy. The long period of non-regulation has resulted in the formation of a vaping community, a clearly defined and passionate group with a life-and-death interest in the outcome of the debate. This will surely affect the further shape of the e-cigarette phenomenon. In the Scientific American article, Tom Whalen asks the question "Are e-cigs truly safe?" even though a concept as imprecise as "true safety" would seem to be a bit fuzzy for a scientific "big hitter" like SA. He seems to mean "100% risk free" by this, a standard of safety that e-cig opponents demand for the product, although in real life none of us require this standard of safety from everyday things like automotive and air travel, fun at the beach, or household products.

The article repeats the litany we all know by now: nicotine is addictive (whether or not it is harmful), e-cigs might make people want to smoke again (why?), second hand vapor might be marginally more harmful than the air in any major city (but probably isn't), or e-cigs might lure teens into their beloved practice of trying dangerous things.

The author does concede that, on the other hand, "greater restrictions might hurt folks who are trying to forgo conventional—and more dangerous—tobacco products."

The SA article discusses the legal background in the US, talking about the court's ruling in 2010 in the lawsuit between Njoy and the FDA, and goes on to a brief rundown of the chemistry of vaping. It runs through a list of slight dangers that might be attendant on the inhaling of propylene glycol (harmless when eaten).

Turning to the idea that e-cigs might attract youth to real smoking, Whalen drags out the CDC study of the autumn of 2013, showing that more youngsters than ever before are vaping (although this statistic gives no indication of whether these kids were moving toward smoking or away from it). It is unclear where Whalen got the figure " at least 160,000 students who had never tried conventional cigarettes puffed on e-cigs," since the CDC study quizzed only about 25,000 students, and it was reported that one in five of the e-cig experimentors were cigarette smokers (again, with no indication of whether they were vaping to quit or hankering to smoke).

Whalen goes on to say: "Yet another analysis linked e-cig use with greater odds of trying tobacco." By "analysis" he could only mean the guess of anti-vaping enthusiasts that this is the case, since there are no data on the subject.

Speaking of anti-vaping enthusiasts, the SA article now brings in the one expert quoted in the article, and it is Stanton Glantz, "a self-described e-cigarette pessimist" whose data and interpretations of data are widely viewed, even by his supporters, as exaggerated anti-vaping campaigns.

The SA article concludes with a question about whether "e-cigs are genuinely safe", meaning: are they safer than swimming in the ocean, flying in a plane, or using a food processor. If they're not safer than all those everyday things and more, then smokers should just keep on smoking and dying, according to the Scientific American.

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