At the vanguard of ‘vaping’

Ellie Mae O'Hagan talks to Katherine Devlin, founder of the e-cigarettes trade body ECITA, about regulations, health risks and pizza-flavoured “vaping”


A few years ago Katherine Devlin made an interesting discovery. A long-time smoker, she was shown by her brother a collection of new electrical devices, which would not only change her smoking habit, but her life as well.

“I enjoyed smoking and didn’t want to give it up but, when my brother showed me these e-cigarette things, I was naturally interested,” she says. “My husband had died of smoking-related cancer at the age of 31. My first e-cigarette experience only lasted about three hours, I must admit, but then I tried again and began to really enjoy using them.”

Some e-smokers regard e-cigarettes as a way of saving money and creating a smoke-free environment for their children. Ms Devlin describes e-smoking enterprises as a “fascinatingly broad demographic,” and adds: “Several established businesses began moving over to selling electronic cigarettes and, alongside this, many individual entrepreneurs are now selling them and their accessories, often from home.”

However, a cloud appeared on the horizon for Ms Devlin’s new hobby – and it wasn’t caused by tobacco smoke. The rapid growth of e-cigarettes had caused regulatory bodies around the world to sit up and take notice. Within a year of her making the switch from smoking cigarettes to “vaping”, as it’s known, the UK government, along with other policymakers around the world, including the US Food and Drug Administration, began threatening to ban what are, according to Ms Devlin, life-saving products.

As a legal secretary she was used to dealing with legalese and she soon realised that the best way to counter what she saw as attacks on the industry would be to find out what regulations should apply to electronic cigarettes, since neither medicinal nor tobacco regulations seemed to be appropriate. “I then wanted to see if I could help the industry to regulate itself, with oversight from government regulators,” she explains.

Some regard e-cigarettes as a way of saving money and creating a smoke-free environment for their children

Over the last few years a small group of electronic cigarette companies has agreed with her idea and have become the founding members of ECITA, the Electronic Cigarette Industry Trade Association. “We’ve now found all the relevant regulatory statutes and we’re developed an auditing programme, which we call the Industry Standard of Excellence (ISE),” says Ms Devlin. “This programme doesn’t stop at the basic level of legal compliance; we want excellence from our members, from the best possible business practices, to refusing to sell to minors, even though there are no legal restrictions.”

Members are audited biannually, using public health lab analysts to test their products. “This means that the public can feel confident when they see these companies on the ECITA website,” she says. ECITA also wants regular testing of the e-liquid to ensure that nicotine levels are as stated and that there is no contamination. She points out that Trading Standards described the organisation’s code as one that “any industry would be proud to have”.

The health issue is the most difficult challenge for this nascent industry, though. Although many e-cigarette users appear to regard the technology as a smoking cessation aid, it can’t be described as such because to make a medical claim like this would be illegal.

Last year a coroner recorded an open verdict on a man who was found to have an “oily residue” in his lungs which, it was alleged, was due to e-cigarettes. Ms Devlin is quick to defend the product in this case. “It’s just not possible that any residue came from e-cigarettes,” she claims. “The whole point about vaping is that nothing gets into the lungs.”

However, as well as anecdotal feedback on the effect that e-cigarettes have had on some users’ lungs, there are concerns about their impact. This January, for instance, researchers at the Center for Global Tobacco Control at the Harvard School of Public Health reported changes in the lung function of healthy smokers who used an e-cigarette for just five minutes. The researchers found that after this short period, users showed signs of airway constriction and inflammation.

Another health concern relates to the effects of propyl glycol, the substance which, when heated, creates the vapour. Again Ms Devlin is emphatic. “This chemical has been commonly used without any significant problems for over 70 years,” she says. “You find it in asthma inhalers. Of course, e-cigarettes are relatively new and so there’s bound to be a lot of ignorance and concerns about them.”

She is naturally keen to stress the health benefits that e-cigarettes can offer over the traditional, longer-established cousins. “For the first time, there’s an attractive alternative to smoking, which allows smokers to reduce their risk of harm by something in the region of 99 per cent, according to international public health experts, such as Professor Mike Siegel of Boston University,” she says.

“The key factor is that this is an easy switch to make and it’s a fun product to use. You simply can’t achieve that with a medicine, like nicotine replacement therapy. When did you last hear of ‘Patchfest UK’? On the other hand, the UK will be holding its third Vapefest this year and we expect a great turnout.”

Improved technology means that now cartomisers and atomisers, the devices which create the vapour that is inhaled, are increasingly more reliable and deliver a much better quality vaping experience. Further likely advances will be in battery technology, such as the speed of charging batteries. The e-liquid manufacturing processes have been refined and are probably at their peak at the moment, according to Ms Devlin.

“Overall I’m very positive,” she says. “Vaping is what smoking always tried to be, but never quite managed. The only way is up in designing new flavour sensations, like the recent introduction of pizza-flavoured vaping, although that’s not something I’d like to try.”