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Is France trying to ‘kill off’ the e-cigarette?

Text by: Charlotte BOITIAUX
4 min

After French Health Minister Marisol Touraine forbade e-cigarettes in certain public places and for those younger than 16, several doctors are speaking out against a decision they see as harmful. FRANCE 24 takes a closer look.


France’s health minister, Marisol Touraine, decided on Friday to establish “the same laws for electronic cigarettes as for regular cigarettes”, meaning that they will not be allowed in certain public spaces or sold to minors under 16, and advertising will be prohibited.

Unlike normal cigarettes, electronic devices are not currently banned in most public places in France, making them a common alternative for smoking in bars, public transport hubs, and even airplanes.

But according to Touraine, those who smoke e-cigarettes may be endangering their health. “The electronic cigarette is not a harmless product,” she said in an interview on radio station France Info, adding that “tobacco is responsible for 73,000 deaths per year”.

In a report published on May 28 by the French Office for Tobacco Prevention, however, no evidence was cited that smoking e-cigarettes poses any actual health risk. “Right now, we don’t know enough about the products [in e-cigarettes],” the author of the report wrote, though “to our knowledge, appropriately made and used, it presents infinitely fewer dangers than [regular] cigarettes”.

An excess of caution?

Experts suggest that Touraine acted with an excess of caution rather than face the possibility of health risks from e-cigarettes being discovered down the road. “The French minister was overly cautious, and her zeal is catastrophic,” judged Jean-François Etter, a professor of Public Health at the University of Geneva. “The e-cigarette is an alternative that can save millions of lives. I don’t understand these disappointing declarations, which go against the welfare of the population.”

For many medical experts, the e-cigarette indeed has “therapeutic potential” – even if it is not a medication against addiction. According to Dr. William Lowenstein, addiction specialist and president of French association SOS Addictions, the benefits of e-cigarettes are undeniable. “There are none of the carcinogenic substances,” he said during a TV interview with France 5 on May 16. “Replacing the cigarette is a way of breaking the addiction to this cancer-causing product.”

Getting rid of a rival for pharmaceutical lobbies

Another expert, Professor Robert Molimard, pointed to the “probable arrangements” between pharmaceutical lobbies and European governments in decisions made regarding e-cigarettes. “How can you not wonder when most of the experts in the report by the French Office for Tobacco Prevention [which says we don’t know enough about e-cigarettes to be sure about their effects], including Bertrand Dautzenberg, Béatrice Le Maître, and Gérard Mathern, say in the report that they have links or even contracts with pharmaceutical groups,” he said. “Obviously there’s a conflict of interest.”

There is “no doubt”, according to Molimard, that Touraine’s decision is the result of pressure from these pharmaceutical groups. Just as the European Commission is deciding on rules to implement for the use of e-cigarettes, pharmaceutical lobbies indeed seem to be doing everything in their power to ensure that the electronic gadget, which has become “a serious rival for nicotine patches and Nicorette chewing gum”, is dead on arrival, Molimard explains in an article published May 23 on the medical news site Formindep.

A lucrative market

The sale of e-cigarettes over the past few years has been particularly lucrative. According to the French Office for Tobacco Prevention, the gadget raked in 40 million euros in 2012, and is expected to make 100 million in 2013 – roughly the same amount as nicotine substitutes sold in pharmacies.

Though Etter is sceptical of the kind of allegations made by Molimard, he does not dismiss the notion of a possible arrangement between the French government and pharmaceutical groups. “If speaking openly about a collaboration between the political powers and the pharmaceutical industry seems farfetched right now, no one can deny that the ‘death’ of the e-cigarette would be good news for pharmaceutical groups,” he concluded.

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