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Fight over e-cig safety heats up
E-cigarette manufacturers and public health groups are sparing over a new study that claims the non-tobacco products are 95 percent safer than regular cigarettes.
The report commissioned by Public Health England (PHE), an independent panel of experts in the United Kingdom also found that of 2.6 million adult e-cigarettes users in that country, almost all are using a vapor device to help them quit smoking.
Vapor companies are hailing the study, while critics say its findings are premature.
The study has sparked a firestorm and comes as e-cigarettes see strong growth and health groups pressure officials to more tightly regulate the industry.
"How can one conclude they are 95 percent safer where there's still so much we don't know?" asked Matthew Farrelly, senior director of the Public Health Policy Research Program at RTI International.
Farrelly, an expert in tobacco research, said it's probably true that e-cigarettes are less harmful than traditional combustible cigarettes, but cautions that no one can say they're safe for sure.
Over 300 product brands come from the burgeoning industry with thousands of flavors to choose from, making uniform comparisons difficult.
"If we can get to a place where there's product testing and standards, and the science evolves, you could imagine a world where it's a safer alternative to smoking," he said.
Until then, it could be dangerous to compare smoking in the U.K. with the U.S., some health experts warn.
"The data from our two countries is different," Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said in a written response to the study.
"We have seen a greater growth in use among kids - and as several studies have shown, the growth in the U.S. has also been among kids who were not previously tobacco users."
Data released in April from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Tobacco Products showed that e-cigarette use among middle and high school students tripled in the last year.
But the UK report found no evidence to suggest that e-cigarettes are serving as a gateway to smoking for children or nonsmokers in the country.
Even if safer than tobacco cigarettes, Farrelly said e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which can negatively affect developing adolescent brains.
E-cigarette manufactures, however, don't disagree that e-cigarettes aren't without risks, but they see the study as validating many of their claims.
Adam Kustin, vice president of marketing at VMR Products, said the UK report fairly says that nicotine is addictive and that e-cigarettes should only be used by current smokers.
The e-cigarette company, best-known for its brand V2, however, called the report highly encouraging because it points out that there is a misperception among roughly half of consumers that e-cigarettes and tobacco cigarettes are of equal risk.
"Given the source of this study, we hope that it provides some influence on the FDA's position on electronic cigarettes," Kustin said. "And while the UK hasn't made any policy changes based on this brand new study, their updated perspective could lead the way in how governments view the societal value of e-cigarettes."
Health and industry groups are still waiting on the FDA to finalize its tobacco deeming rule to regulate all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and cigars, for the first time.
Brian May, a spokesman for the Philip Morris parent company Altria USA, said one of the most meaningful things FDA can do is create a comprehensive harm reduction strategy for tobacco.
The strategy, he said, should be on that addresses the role less harmful products could play in reducing tobacco use.
"For those that want to reduce the health effects of tobacco use, the best thing is to quit, but certainly for those who continue to use tobacco products there is a growing body that suggests some tobacco products are lower risk than others," he said. "That's something we're engaging the FDA on."
Health groups though aren't letting up and are questioning the study's researchers.
Erika Sward, the American Lung Association's assistant vice president of national advocacy, cited a report in The Lancet, a UK medical journal. That report attributed the claim that e-cigarettes are 95 percent safer to a paper by David Nutt, who founded the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs in 2010. One of the other authors of the paper had served as a consultant to Arbi Group, an e-cigarette distributor.
"One of the studies used to make this conclusion was done by someone on the e-cigarette payroll," Sward alleged.
"What we've seen from the beginning since e-cigarettes have come out are unsubstantiated health claims by the industry and this is just one more."
Health groups say the new study is only raising pressure on the FDA to act.
According to the American Lung Association, Labor Day will mark the 500th day since FDA first proposed it's deeming rule.
"All we've seen are industry claims, said Sward. "We have yet to see third-party rigorous research about these products and that's what we need the FDA to do."
In a statement to The Hill, Nutt said he has never received funding from the tobacco industry or any e-cigarette company.
"The Lancet paper was trying to undermine our research by claiming that two of the protagonists had links with e-cigarette companies," he said.
This story was updated with additional information at 1 p.m. on Sept. 1.
An earlier version of the story contained incorrect information about David Nutt's professional affiliations. It was corrected on Sept. 2 to identify him solely as a founder of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs in 2010.