THE Health Ministry should be applauded for enlisting the advice of a technical committee to study the scientific evidence relating to the regulation of e-cigarettes.
For all the heated rhetoric, there's little dispute in the scientific community: those who quit smoking cigarettes and switch to e-cigarettes reap immediate as well as long-term health benefits. And those improvements are dramatic.
After all, the nicotine, present in both cigarettes and many e-cigarettes, is addictive, but not particularly harmful. The danger comes from burning and inhaling tobacco, which is done with cigarettes but not e-cigarettes.
Nicotine's bad reputation should be attributed to its most common delivery device, cigarettes. Nicotine itself is about as dangerous as the caffeine in soda. Along the same lines, while too much soda can cause weight gain, nobody seriously suggests that caffeine causes obesity. Similarly, e-cigarettes provide the nicotine and the habitual activity of smoking, without the danger of burning tobacco.
In fact, governments around the world are beginning to recognise the potential benefits of e-cigarettes as a tool for "harm reduction."
Harm reduction is a widely used public health strategy that provides a range of choices in an effort to help people lower, if not completely eliminate risks from various dangerous behaviours.
Tobacco harm reduction is based on the fact that there is a continuum of risks from nicotine products and the goal should be to help people move to lower risk but satisfying products without failing and returning to smoking -- the riskiest form of nicotine consumption. E-cigarettes are quickly becoming the most popular tobacco harm reduction tool since they strike a balance between lowering risk and providing satisfaction.
In the United States, which takes a hard line on tobacco regulation, the Food and Drug Administration is poised to continue to permit the use of e-cigarettes as part of what the chief tobacco regulator calls a "comprehensive nicotine regulatory policy".
This sensible approach could do more to help reduce the harm from tobacco use more than any heavy-handed government policy anywhere in the world.
Contrast this with the European Union, which may attempt to effectively ban e-cigarettes by regulating them like medicines. Such a heavy-handed approach would make the products so unappealing and costly, that they couldn't compete with cigarettes.
Smokers from countries that ban e-cigarettes have a much poorer prognosis. Without e-cigarettes as a somewhat satisfying alternative to cigarettes, these people will be forced to continue a habit they wish they could quit. If only their government gave them the choice.
Malaysian smokers are already quitting the deadly habit and switching to e-cigarettes, even in advance of a formal regulatory policy.
Hundreds have signed a petition in support of a harm reduction policy and opposing a ban, citing their own experiences.
Jeff Stier, senior fellow, National Center for Public Policy Research, Washington, United States