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Where there is smoke...

15 May 2013, 07:26

E-cigarettes and its refill liquid are classified as schedule 3 drugs and may only be sold at pharmacies if you have a script from your doctor.

You would never say it, because there are e-cigarette kiosks in shopping centres everywhere selling their ware to anyone.

This came to light in a recent news article that revealed how a change in the Medicines and Related Substances Act last year classified nicotine in the form used for e-cigarettes as a schedule 3 drug – the scheduling also applies to the e-cigarette gadget which is considered a delivery device for a scheduled medication. (The nicotine used in e-cigarettes is not derived from tobacco and therefore the Tobacco Control Act does not apply to it. Nicotine, however, is an addictive, pharmacologically active drug that has to be regulated).

One of the main e-cigarette players in South Africa responded to the article with legal threats, warning this news agency that they will take action if the article is not removed from their website immediately. 

The e-cigarette manufacturer claimed that the law only applies to nicotine when used for smoking cessation, and therefore they can get around the law by not marketing the product for smoking cessation and merely for “recreational use”.

But unfortunately for him the law isn’t that easy to get around – if that was the case one could argue that we could also sell heroine (which is a schedule 7 drug) under the guise of recreational use. So in a follow-up article the Medicines Control Council (MCC) confirmed that the scheduling does apply to e-cigarettes regardless of how it is marketed and that it is therefore illegal to sell it anywhere else than in a pharmacy.

But until now it seems the MCC has not lifted a finger to try and implement or police the law that came into effect in March last year already. And e-cigarette manufacturers knowingly and brazenly continue to illegally sell their products to an uninformed public that doesn’t seem to receive any protection from regulators.

Why, you might ask, should these products be regulated? They are ‘safer’ than regular tobacco products, aren’t they? The product is more environmentally friendly than cigarettes. Why should it be more difficult to buy a ‘safer’ product than the real killer?

The way I see it is that with cigarettes you know what you are getting: cancer, heart disease, erectile dysfunction, and a list of other ailments longer than I care to mention. The public is well informed about the dangers of smoking and cigarette makers pay a fair amount of of tax for the privilege of selling you their poison.

E-cigarettes, on the other hand, make a lot of claims about being healthy and safe and promise to help you stop smoking. But when you start scratching around in the scientific literature, few of these claims can be substantiated, and in fact you start to see that e-cigarettes are not free of health risks at all.

The way I see it, until more is known about the good and bad of this product – and not anecdotal evidence, but proper scientific data – I’m not okay with an unproven, addictive and potentially harmful substance being sold at around R500 a shot to people desperate to quit smoking.

Wilma Stassen is a journalist with Health-e News (www.health-e.org.za)

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