In 1898 Würzburg medical student Hermann Rottmann proposed tobacco dust, not smoke, might be causing the elevated incidence of lung tumors among German tobacco workers. In 1912 New York doctor Isaac Adler proposed smoking, not tobacco dust, was to blame for the growing incidence of pulmonary tumours.
The intervening years reveal a rocky road on the journey to convince both the medical profession and the public at large that smoking is dangerous. As late as 1960 only one third of all US doctors believed the case against cigarettes had been established.
We evolve slowly (even those of us with the facts at our fingertips) because we relish the safety of our comfort zones. It is no wonder then that, despite tomes of reputable evidence, inertia is often the preferred position in the argument about the wider harms of passive smoking.
As recently as 2011, a Dutch survey revealed only 61 per cent of adults agreed cigarette smoke endangered non-smokers. More recently a new tactic has emerged to maintain the status quo: passive smoking does no harm.
Enter the electronic cigarette.
Were Rottman and Adler both wrong? Is combustion the problem?
In this microelectronic age, it was only a matter of time before a commercially lucrative, deadly habit found its raison d’être in the guise of a “safe” vapor containing nicotine to the lungs without exposing the organ to the damage of tobacco combustion.
So, were Rottman and Adler both wrong? Is combustion (rather than the product) the problem? The answer is neither. What is more likely is that the electronic cigarette is providing a highly effective smokescreen to ensure the regency of smoking and the empire of tobacco.
The good news is that it won’t take another hundred years until enough evidence amasses to prove anything inhaled, beside the required oxygen-led mix, can damage our lungs. Evidence about the deleterious effects of e-cigarettes is accruing surprisingly fast. Every week a new reputable publication espouses the ill effects of e-cigarettes. This week the American Thoracic Society describes how ‘e-cigs’ inhibit the cough reflex, which is essential to protect the lungs from inhaling foreign bodies and subsequent lung infections.
Meanwhile other studies are suggesting the unvaporized e-liquids in e-cigarettes, especially those containing fruit or sweet flavours, may have deleterious effects worse than tobacco.
As the data emerges legislators would do well to learn from the 100 years war against inhaling nicotine and act decisively to ban e-cigarettes because history has shown this is one battle against drugs we can win.