Leading experts on addiction have hit out at the recent World Health Organization (WHO) paper on e-cigarettes, saying it is “misleading and not an accurate reflection of available evidence.”

Writing in the journal Addiction, Professor Ann McNeill, lead author from the National Addiction Centre at King’s College London, said that she was: “Surprised by the negativity of the commissioned review and found it misleading and not an accurate reflection of available evidence.

Professor McNeill was responding to the WHO’s Background Paper on E-cigarettes. She claims the evidence presented in the report contains important errors, misinterpretations and misrepresentations putting policy-makers and the public in danger of foregoing the potential public health benefits of e-cigarettes.

“E-cigarettes are new and we certainly don’t yet have all the answers as to their long-term health impact, but what we do know is that they are much safer than cigarettes, which kill over 6 million people a year worldwide,” she added.

“Furthermore, the review appears to have informed the policy recommendations published in last week’s WHO report on e-cigarettes. Any policies surrounding e-cigarettes must be evidence-based and like any product, e-cigarettes should be subjected to some form of regulation. However, the WHO’s approach will make it harder to bring these products to market than tobacco products, inhibit innovation and put off smokers from using e-cigarettes, putting us in danger of foregoing the public health benefits these products could have.”

The article by McNeill and colleagues considers nine statements from the WHO-commissioned review and provides an alternative conclusion and a commentary. These include:

  • The review implies that e-cigarette use in youth is a major problem and could be acting as a gateway to smoking when in fact current use by non-smokers is extremely rare and youth smoking rates are declining
  • The review fails to acknowledge that e-cigarettes are not just less harmful than tobacco cigarettes but that the concentrations of toxins are mostly a tiny fraction of what is found in cigarette smoke
  • The review infers that bystanders can inhale significant levels of toxins from the vapour when  the concentrations are too low to present a significant health risk
  • The review gives the impression that evidence suggests that e-cigarettes inhibit smoking cessation when the opposite is true.

Professor Peter Hajek, co-author from the Tobacco Dependence Research Unit at Queen Mary University of London, said: “There are currently two products competing for smokers’ custom. One, the conventional cigarette, endangers users and bystanders and recruits new customers from among non-smoking children who try it. The other, e-cigarette, is orders of magnitude safer, poses no risk to bystanders, and generates negligible rates of regular use among non-smoking children who try it. The WHO recommendations blur these differences and if followed, will cripple the competitiveness of e-cigarettes and help to maintain the market monopoly of conventional cigarettes.”