THOUSANDS of Australian smokers are switching to potentially dangerous electronic cigarettes despite a ban on the products, which are being marketed as the ”healthy” way to kick the habit.
The Australian Medical Association and Quit Victoria say there is no evidence smokeless, battery-powered ”e-cigarettes” packed with nicotine can help people quit, and they warn that such products have not been tested for safety and could pose a serious health risk.
Sale or use of the products was outlawed in Victoria in January last year, but overseas suppliers continue to sell them online to Australians. Former smokers say recent tax increases and smoking bans prompted their switch to e-cigarettes. Some claim the product helped them give up cigarettes altogether.
But health groups fear the unregulated, cigarette-shaped devices maintain users’ links with smoking and could cause nicotine poisoning.
”I’m concerned they are being marketed online as a healthy alternative to regular cigarettes when there is no evidence to support this claim,” said AMA president Dr Harry Hemley. ”These products have been banned in Victoria and have not been deemed safe by regulators. As far as I am aware, there are no warning labels to alert consumers to the risks of use.” Ingestion of excessive nicotine can cause vomiting, breathing difficulties and, in extreme cases, death.
Father-of-two Terry Halmshaw began using e-cigarettes eight months ago, inhaling and exhaling water vapour from cartridges housed in a rechargeable holder. The products cost about $4 each and last about as long as a packet of cigarettes. They contain an inhaler, an atomiser and nicotine suspended in propylene glycol and water.
Mr Halmshaw, 45, of Meredith, was a pack-a-day smoker from the age of 15 and had many failed attempts to quit. He says he has not smoked a standard cigarette since he started using e-cigarettes, which he believes are healthy. ”All that’s in there is nicotine. There’s no CO2, there’s no tar, there’s no sulphur, no cigarette butts, no ash – they’re clean.”
He said he used to spend $550 a month on tobacco but now spent $120 on electronic cartridges instead.
”The best thing is when I go to the local hotel I don’t have to go outside to have a smoke with the rest of the lepers; I can sit at the bar and smoke. I get my nicotine fix, I still get to hold something in my hand, get to put something in my mouth. They’re perfect for me.”
In an article published in Tobacco Control last week, researchers recommended banning e-cigarettes. Analysis of six electronic cigarette brands found nicotine levels were difficult to ascertain and the toxic substance often leaked out of the products, posing a risk to children.
A spokeswoman for the Therapeutic Goods Administration said e-cigarettes were not a safe alternative to normal cigarettes and were not approved for therapeutic use. ”Except in therapeutic preparations [such as] nicotine replacement therapies, nicotine is a schedule 7 poison because it is harmful to human health. Consumers are warned of their danger to health and encouraged not to purchase these harmful cigarette substitutes,” she said.
However, she said there were no laws preventing the importation of such products bought over the internet for personal use, unless prohibited by state and territory legislation.
The warning comes after the federal government last week announced plans to add nicotine replacement therapy to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, slashing the price of patches from $160 a month to $5.
Paul Medarov, chief executive of New Zealand-based company Elusion, the largest supplier of e-cigarettes in Australia with about 10,000 customers, said sales increased 200 per cent in May after the federal government announced a 25 per cent tax rise on tobacco products. Elusion sells cartridges with high, medium, low or zero nicotine.
Mr Medarov said most people reduced their nicotine intake and gave up smoking completely.
Electronic cigarettes contain an inhaler, an atomiser and nicotine suspended in propylene glycol and water.
■ What are e-cigarettes? Electronic cigarettes contain an inhaler, an atomiser and nicotine suspended in propylene glycol and water.
■ What do they look like? Like a normal cigarette including water vapour that resembles cigarette smoke. The products cost about $4 each and are approximately equivalent to one packet of cigarettes.
■ Are they available? They are banned from sale in Victoria but are being sold online for personal use.
■ Health risks? Authorities warn that ingestion of excessive nicotine can cause vomiting, breathing difficulties and, in extreme cases, death.
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