Communications and Marketing

Electronic Cigarettes - An Uncontrolled Experiment with Consumers

No. 31 | 14/05/2013 | by MPL/Sel

Unlike conventional cigarettes, electronic cigarettes do not produce thousands of toxic and carcinogenic substances. Nevertheless, they are not harmless. They contain, as their main ingredient, a substance that irritates the airways, usually along with toxic, addictive nicotine and some carcinogenic substances. In addition, they frequently have various technical flaws. Nevertheless, electronic cigarettes are currently sold unregulated as lifestyle products without any appropriate quality control, turning consumers into involuntary experimental subjects. The German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) has compiled and analyzed available scientific data on product characteristics, potential health risks and prevalence of the products as well as their potential usefulness in smoking cessation in its latest report entitled “Electronic Cigarettes – An Overview”. According to this report, the electronic cigarette is not a safe product.


Due to their nicotine content, existing product flaws and their use as a cigarette replacement, the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) recommends classifying electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) as medicinal products in the revised EU Directive on Tobacco Products, as proposed by the European Commission. “Consumers should be able to trust that a product is safe and not harmful to health – and this is not the case with electronic cigarettes,” says Dr. Martina Pötschke-Langer, head of the Unit Cancer Prevention and the WHO Collaborating Centre for Tobacco Control at DKFZ. At present, consumers have only a vague idea of what they are consuming with e-cigarettes. It is not uncommon for nicotine content to be declared inaccurately or even falsely. Depending on the device, the efficiency of nicotine delivery into the aerosol inhaled may differ considerably, which may lead to overdose and even to poisoning symptoms. The liquids used in e-cigarettes contain ingredients which may cause airway irritations and allergic reactions. The aerosol of some liquids contains carcinogenic substances such as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, acrolein, nickel and chromium.

Electronic cigarettes are currently used predominantly by smokers intending to cut down or quit smoking. Although available data show that electronic cigarettes can relieve withdrawal symptoms, it has not yet been scientifically proven whether they help achieve sustained smoking cessation. A lot of research still needs to be done on e-cigarettes to evaluate product quality, ingredients, health consequences and efficacy of the products as smoking cessation aids. There is an urgent need for appropriate scientific studies to ensure that consumers get a reliable product. “The electronic cigarette, which contains addictive nicotine, should only be approved after detailed evaluation of product quality, effects and side effects and exclusively for smokers looking for a less harmful alternative to smoking or a smoking cessation aid,” says Martina Pötschke-Langer.

The Federation of German Consumer Organisations (vzbv) also calls for appropriate regulation of electronic cigarettes to protect consumers. “Selling e-cigarettes as lifestyle products trivializes them. Misleading marketing and misinformation cannot be excluded. This makes it impossible for consumers to assess health risks. We need reliable product information and control mechanisms,” says Ilona Köster-Steinebach, health expert at vzbv. She continues that product safety must be ensured and product information must clearly declare health risks and ingredients. Moreover, youth and non-smokers must be prevented from using e-cigarettes as a gateway product to smoking. “E-cigarettes should only be allowed to be offered for tobacco cessation– and the only way to achieve this is by classifying them as medicinal products,” says Köster-Steinebach.

The publication is here available for download or as a printed booklet at the Press Office of DKFZ.

The German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) with its more than 3,000 employees is the largest biomedical research institution in Germany. At DKFZ, more than 1,300 scientists investigate how cancer develops, identify cancer risk factors and endeavor to find new strategies to prevent people from getting cancer. They develop novel approaches to make tumor diagnosis more precise and treatment of cancer patients more successful. DKFZ’s Cancer Information Service (KID) provides individual answers to all questions about cancer for patients, the general public, and health care professionals. Jointly with partners from Heidelberg University Hospital, DKFZ runs the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) located in Heidelberg and Dresden, and, also in Heidelberg, the Hopp Children’s Cancer Center (KiTZ). In the German Cancer Consortium (DKTK), one of six German Centers for Health Research, DKFZ maintains translational centers at seven university partnering sites. Combining excellent university hospitals with high-profile research at a Helmholtz Center at the NCT and DKTK sites is an important contribution to the endeavor of translating promising approaches from cancer research into the clinic in order to improve the chances of cancer patients. DKFZ is a member of the Helmholtz Association of National Research Centers, with ninety percent of its funding coming from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the remaining ten percent from the State of Baden-Württemberg.


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