Those concerned over what some see as the demonization of e-cigarettes may feel supported by a new open letter to Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, from an international group of 53 leading scientists who urge the agency not to classify e-cigarettes as tobacco products.

Medical News Today has been running reports on a weekly basis recently of new studies and policy developments concerning e-cigarettes.

This month alone, we have looked at an article in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology claiming there is “not enough evidence” to support the benefits of e-cigarettes; a study in the journal Addiction that finds e-cigarettes are more effective than gum and patches at helping people quit smoking; and research presented by the American Thoracic Society suggesting that e-cigarettes make MRSA “harder to kill”.

We also brought news of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) proposal to regulate e-cigarettes.

The FDA propose to include e-cigarettes as part of new regulations also tackling cigars, pipe tobacco, nicotine gels and water pipe tobacco. Minimum age and identification restrictions would prevent these products being sold to anyone under the age of 18.

The regulations would also require manufacturers of e-cigarettes to disclose all ingredient listings and would only allow them to market their products after they have been reviewed by the FDA.

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News of increased regulation has drawn fierce criticism from advocates of e-cigarettes, who view them as a less harmful alternative to conventional cigarettes.

News of increased regulation has drawn fierce criticism from advocates of e-cigarettes, who view them as a less harmful alternative to conventional cigarettes.

In particular, defenders of e-cigarettes were alarmed by documents leaked from a World Health Organization (WHO) meeting last November, which described the nicotine-containing devices as a “threat” and proposed they be classified with other tobacco products under the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

Although the US is not signed up to this international convention, the proposed move would affect the 178 signatory countries who are obliged to implement its measures.

This would result in raising taxes, banning advertising, introducing health warnings and preventing use of e-cigarettes in public places.

In response, the group of 53 scientists – from Europe, North America, Asia and Australia – insist in their open letter to WHO that e-cigarettes are a low-risk alternative to cigarettes that are “part of the solution,” not the problem, in the campaign against smoking.

“These products could be among the most significant health innovations of the 21st century – perhaps saving hundreds of millions of lives,” the scientists write. “The urge to control and suppress them as tobacco products should be resisted.”

Addressing the studies that have suggested e-cigarettes may promote rather than reduce smoking behaviors, the scientists make the claim that they are “unaware of any credible evidence that supports this conjecture.”

One of the organizers of the letter to Margaret Chan – Gerry Stimson, emeritus professor at Imperial College London in the UK – described WHO’s stance on e-cigarettes as “bizarre,” telling Reuters news agency that “we want to make sufficient noise now before things get too set in stone.”

The official line from WHO, meanwhile, is that the organization are currently assessing their position on the matter.

Armando Peruga, programme manager for WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative told reporters this week: “At this point the only thing I can say is that we are elaborating these regulations and they will soon be available to you.”

Commenting on the open letter, Dr. Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, says:

“The overall impact of e-cigarette use on public health is currently unclear. While they could prove to be an important tool to help people stop smoking, the unregulated status of e-cigarettes is problematic.

The concern is that the safety and effectiveness of e-cigarettes is still unknown. Until we have more substantial research we would encourage all smokers who wish to quit smoking to use ‘stop smoking’ services and approved nicotine replacement products.”