THE debate over e-cigarettes is one of the most volatile and fast moving in public health, as scientists attempt to navigate the constantly shifting landscape – and the public tries to make sense out of all the hot air.
Only last year there were calls for fierce regulation, alongside panic that the eye-catching devices could act as a ‘gateway drug’ to teenagers taking up smoking traditional cigarettes.
New studies are published almost daily on the harm or benefits of vaping, as both sides struggle to regain control of the debate.
The devices have proliferated into daily life, as passers-by barely blink now when they catch sight of someone puffing away on something which would not have looked out of place on the Starship Enterprise.
Health charities cautiously, and then more loudly, have called for greater support for their use as a cessation device, or a less harmful alternative to traditional cigarettes.
Public Health England (PHE) recently made the landmark recommendation that the devices should be prescribed on the NHS, once regulated, based on a study which found e-cigarettes were 95 per cent less harmful than normal cigarettes due to lower levels of carcinogens.
However, it emerged that the study had been funded by the e-cigarette industry, revealing a glimpse of the vested interests on both sides of the chasm.
Some studies have found the flavourings in e-cigarettes can cause respiratory problems and the World Health Organisation has said there is not enough robust evidence to show the devices helped committed smokers to ditch the fags.
If more research is done, then one of the major benefits of prescribing e-cigarettes could be the reduction in health inequalities.
In Scotland, smoking rates are highest in the most deprived areas and products such as nicotine patches and chewing gum can be costly.
The harm caused by cigarettes is exceedingly well documented, so the argument for smoking becomes one about freedom of choice.
Providing people with more options could be a positive thing, particularly if e-cigarettes live up to their hype.
More research is clearly needed before e-cigarettes can be backed fully but a blanket ban must be resisted.
The Scottish Government’s proposals to prevent under-18s from buying e-cigarettes are sensible, as for whatever their merits, these devices are not toys.
But rising levels of cancer and heart disease loom large over our ageing population and any opportunity to tackle the problems should not be wasted.