The benefits and drawbacks of electronic cigarettes (e-cigs) are being debated by medical experts and policymakers alike. Though it’s true they don’t release secondhand smoke or contain certain harmful substances present in traditional cigarettes, e-cigs still contain nicotine, the addictive component of cigarettes. The safety profile of e-cigs is still incomplete, but one expert argues this isn’t a good enough reason to ban them.

All health boards in Scotland (with one exception, NHS Lothian), have banned the use of e-cigs on hospital grounds. David Shaw, a senior research fellow at the institute for Biomedical Ethics, University of Basel, Switzerland, argues that “by refusing the use of e-cigarettes on hospital grounds, the NHS is harming the health of patients and the wider public.”

Shaw points out that while not all effects of e-cigs are known yet, substantial evidence has suggested they are at least a better option than conventional cigarettes.

“Hospitals should be using e-cigarettes in creative ways to improve patients’ health rather than banning them while continuing to tolerate conventional smoking around their premises,” he writes.

The prohibition of e-cigs will also increase the risk of smoking right outside the hospital. The article points out that many members of the public must pass by smokers on their way into the hospital, and would have to hold their breath in an attempt to avoid breathing in the fumes from patients (some of whom are very ill) smoking outside. Even if the vapor from an e-cigarette wisped in front of entrances, it would be less harmful and unpleasant to walk through than a cloud of cigarette smoke.

Shaw then takes on the image issue — some argue that allowing e-cigs would “normalize smoking” and be a bad example for young people. Though this is a valid concern, the ban on e-cigs would then be sending the message that hospitals care more about image than the actual health and safety of their patients and visitors.

“Permitting e-cigarette use on hospital grounds would provide much more positive role modeling for children than seeing pregnant women and patients with cancer smoking conventional cigarettes in subzero temperatures at the main entrance to hospitals,” the article states.

The ideological opposition to e-cigarettes is understandable to a certain point, since smoking is a highly divisive public health problem. Shaw says that the benefits of e-cigs, despite connections with the tobacco industry that make people uncomfortable, would ultimately have a beneficial effect on both individual and public health.

“By refusing to allow the use of e-cigarettes on hospital grounds, the NHS is harming the health of patients and the wider public.”

Source: Shaw D. Hospitals are wrong to ban e-cigarette use. The BMJ. 2015.