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E-cigarettes: A Safe Alternative to Regular Cigarettes?

When the library gets crowded with Kingos during the exam period, smokers can be witnessed more often than usual. Among the Kingos who smoke, some prefer electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) to regular cigarettes believing that they are less harmful. The controversy over the harmfulness of e-cigarettes, however, is still flaring up. Therefore, The SungKyun Times (SKT) decided to delve into the truth of e-cigarettes and tried to figure out how Kingos should perceive them.

E-cigarettes in General

How E-cigarettes Work and the Usage Report

The first e-cigarette was a battery-powered, smokeless nontobacco cigarette invented by an American named Herbert A. Gilbert in 1963. Then, starting in 2012, several international tobacco companies started developing e-cigarettes in their current form. There are mainly two types of e-cigarettes. One is liquid e-cigarettes, and the other is tobacco-heating products. What these two types have in common is that they are smokeless with no need to use fire. Liquid e-cigarettes vaporize nicotine concentrates with the power of the battery and tobacco-heating products make vapor by steaming tobacco leaves at a high temperature through an iron core. E-cigarette sales have been steadily increasing since they were introduced to the Korean market in 2013. The continual increase of the e-cigarettes’ market share indicates that they are filling up the gap created by decreasing regular cigarette sales. According to the Ministry of Economy and Finance, the sales figure of regular cigarettes, from January to June in 2019, were 1.47 billion packs which is 3.6% lower than that of last year’s, but the sales figure for tobacco-heating products was 190 million packs, which is 24.2% higher compared to that of last year’s.

Market Share of E-cigarettes in Korea by Quarter (koreaherald.com)

The Controversy over E-cigarettes

The Grounds for Supporting E-cigarettes

The supporters of e-cigarettes believe that the purpose of using e-cigarettes is to provide a better alternative to regular cigarettes for those who wish to continue smoking. According to them, smoking is, surely, not a desirable habit, but scientific experiment results show that e-cigarettes are medically safer than regular cigarettes. This stance on e-cigarettes suggests the harmfulness of cigarettes comes from chemicals generated during the combustion process, which can be reduced by scientific methods. Similarly, the United States (US) Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced in April 2019 that tobacco-heating products have only about 10% of the toxic chemical substances compared to what regular cigarettes have. The United Kingdom (UK) is a representative country that encourages smokers to switch to e-cigarettes from regular cigarettes arguing that they are less harmful. Also, the UK recommends using e-cigarettes as a means for quitting smoking. According to a survey carried out in January 2019 by the UK National Health Service (NHS), using e-cigarettes is more effective in quitting regular cigarettes than using nicotine substitutes such as nicotine patches. The one-year cessation rate of the e-cigarette user group was about two times higher compared to those who used nicotine substitutes.

Effects of Tobacco Smoke Versus E-cigarette Vapor (news.sky.com)

The Grounds for Opposing E-cigarettes

No Smoking and Vaping Symbol Sign (safetysign.com)

Those who oppose e-cigarettes argue that e-cigarettes should not enter the market. From their perspective, in-depth analysis of the harmfulness of e-cigarettes has not been conducted yet since proving the cause-and-effect relationship between smoking e-cigarettes and disease takes a long time. An experiment announced by the University of North Carolina in August 2019 has a similar position to them. According to this experiment, liquid e-cigarette smokers had six times more mutation rates in their bronchial genes than those who smoked regular cigarettes. The mutated bronchial genes are dangerous because they increase the risk of getting lung cancer and bronchial diseases. In particular, the mutation rate of the EGR-1, a gene that inhibits cancer, was higher than other genes. Furthermore, according to a survey conducted in August 2019 by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, Republic of Korea, smoking e-cigarettes was actually not very helpful for quitting smoking. Rather, it increased nicotine dependence in smokers instead. According to this survey, many people bought tobacco-heating products to quit regular smoking cigarettes but ended up smoking both types of cigarettes. Among the 574 smokers who use tobacco-heating products, 80.8% of them said they smoke regular cigarettes too.

The Future of E-cigarettes in Korea

Systematization of Substance Analysis Methods

Since an international standard for substance analysis of e-cigarettes does not exist, opinions on test results and harmful substances vary by country. In Korea, the National Institute of Food and Drug Safety Evaluation (NIFDS) said they are trying to set standards for analyzing harmful substances of e-cigarettes. To further investigate the harmfulness of e-cigarettes, the standard for substance analysis should be established both domestically and internationally, on the criteria of the test control group, and the harmful substances. Differing perspectives on e-cigarettes by countries are enhancing the confusion of smokers’ judgments as to whether e-cigarettes can serve as an alternative to regular cigarettes. The UK and the New Zealand governments, for instance, operate a government-sponsored website to promote the right concepts of e-cigarettes and to help smokers make a good decision on cigarette alternatives. Korea should follow suit by cooperating with countries that have conducted earlier research on e-cigarettes and have developed proper e-cigarette related policies.

Establishment of E-cigarette Advertisement Standards

A Choice Without Advantage (nebeep.com)

Currently, many e-cigarette companies in Korea are advertising e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation aid. The reason e-cigarette companies can advertise this way is the lack of legislation to regulate improper advertising despite the increased types of e-cigarettes and sales. The regulations on advertising and promotion in Korea are being postponed because there are no tests results which clearly show the harmfulness of e-cigarettes. In the case of regular cigarettes, advertising and promotions were completely banned when 192 countries signed the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, led by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2003. E-cigarettes may not be smoking cessation aids because there is no scientific evidence that using e-cigarettes can help people quit smoking, except for case-based results such as surveys. The WHO also suggested that advertising e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation aid should be regulated for a similar reason in 2014. Accordingly, it would be wise to legislate regulations to restrict inappropriate advertisements.

Of course, the right to smoke should not be infringed, but with policies to help quit smoking, the government should be able to provide more accurate information about e-cigarettes for those who wish to continue smoking. Thus, to make the current situation better, continuous research should be accompanied. The SKT hopes that Korea will prepare for the future well by considering the impact that e-cigarettes will cause to society

김도영  takeiteasy0528@naver.com

<저작권자 © THE SUNGKYUN TIMES, 무단 전재 및 재배포 금지>

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