Shukria Ismail

In the bustling streets of Pakistan, amid the myriad of social and economic challenges, a new health hazard is silently puffing up clouds of concern – electronic cigarettes, commonly known as e-cigarettes, and the act of vaping. Despite the alarming signals from international health bodies, Pakistan’s regulatory framework remains silent on the burgeoning usage of these devices, leaving the population vulnerable to its potential harm.

E-cigarettes are devices that heat a liquid to create an aerosol, commonly referred to as vapor, which the user inhales. This liquid usually contains nicotine, the addictive component found in traditional tobacco products, along with various flavorings and other chemicals. The process of using these devices is termed ‘vaping’. Unlike the iconic image of a burning cigarette, e-cigarettes are diverse in appearance, with some mimicking flash drives, pens, and even everyday items, making them less conspicuous and more appealing to the younger demographic.

While less research is being done in Pakistan, the American Lung Association expresses grave concerns over the health implications of these products, particularly on lung health. The inhalation of harmful chemicals such as acetaldehyde, acrolein, and formaldehyde, which are found in the aerosol produced by e-cigarettes, can lead to irreversible lung damage and diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma, not to mention their role in cardiovascular diseases.

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Despite these documented dangers, the e-cigarette industry in Pakistan is largely unregulated. There are no specific laws to control the sale, advertisement, and use of these devices. This lack of regulation means that consumers and vulnerable groups are unprotected from potentially harmful products and underage individuals can easily access them, unaware of the long-term health risks.

Moreover, studies indicate that ingredients commonly found in e-liquids, such as propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin, exhibit toxicity to cells. The complexity of e-liquids and the cocktail of chemicals inhaled during vaping is a ticking time bomb for public health. Furthermore, the risk extends beyond the user. Second-hand emissions from e-cigarettes contain a myriad of toxic substances including nicotine, ultrafine particles, and heavy metals like nickel, tin, and lead, posing health risks to bystanders.

International health authorities like the U.S. Surgeon General and the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine have raised alarms about these second-hand emissions. Yet, in Pakistan, the absence of a regulatory framework means that these warnings go largely unheeded.

To compound the issue, there is no evidence to suggest that e-cigarettes are effective smoking cessation aids, according to the US Food and Drug Administration. This starkly contrasts the often misleading narrative that vaping is a safer alternative to smoking.

Pakistan grapples with various health challenges, and the silent rise of e-cigarettes and vaping should not be ignored. Policymakers must take cognizance of the international evidence on the dangers of these products and establish a robust regulatory environment. Only through effective regulation, public awareness, and health education can Pakistan hope to protect its citizens from the stealthy growth of this modern health hazard.