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GENEVA -- The World Health Organization (WHO) is pushing for tougher rules for electronic cigarettes until more evidence can be gathered about their potential risks.
In a report released Tuesday, the United Nations health agency said the popular nicotine-vapor products, particularly the fruit, candy and alcohol-drink flavors, could serve as gateway addictions for children and adolescents, according to The Associated Press. WHO recommended governments prohibit or keep to a minimum any advertising, promotion or sponsorship of the products.
In its report, the Geneva-based agency found that the boom in e-cigarettes presents a public health dilemma.
Regulation "is a necessary precondition for establishing a scientific basis on which to judge the effects of their use, and for ensuring that adequate research is conducted and the public health is protected and people made aware of the potential risks and benefits," the report said.
The report, requested in 2012 by the 179-nation WHO treaty for controlling tobacco, will be discussed at a conference in Moscow in October. If the recommendations are adopted, the next step would be for nations to strengthen their laws and policies to meet the treaty obligations, according to the news outlet.
"E-cigarettes are a story of both risks and promises. In a sense, they are a double-edged sword," Dr. Douglas Bettcher, director of WHO's Department for Prevention of Non-communicable Diseases, told reporters. "The tobacco industry is taking greater share -- as public health partners pretending to be part of the solution to the health disaster they have created."
Sales are banned in 13 of the 59 countries that regulate the devices, the WHO reported, but most of those 13 countries say they are still available because of illicit trade and cross-border Internet sales, the AP added.
Even if tougher regulations take hold, they may not apply in the United States. According to Vivian Azer, Cowen & Co.'s director and senior research analyst specializing in the beverage and tobacco sectors, WHO began taking formal action against tobacco in 2005 with the Framework Convention on a Tobacco Control (FCTC), which has since been ratified by 179 states. However, the United States is the only non-signatory state and thus is not obliged to implement measures in the FCTC.
Not everyone agrees with the agency's policy push.
"The WHO recommendations will do more harm than good, ironically protect cigarette sales, and do little to decrease the avoidable burden of non-communicable diseases," said Gerry Stimson, Emeritus Professor at Imperial College, London and co-director of Knowledge-Action-Change. "What is needed is light-touch regulation and a proper appreciation of tradeoffs between regulation to protect consumers whilst not destroying the value these products offer to smokers who want to quit smoking."
In May, Stimson and more than 50 other leading scientists submitted a letter to WHO Director General Margaret Chan, urging the organization not to treat electronic cigarette regulation in the same manner as traditional tobacco.