Matt Ridley – 18th December 2017

Don’t let this British success go up in smoke

Health organisations now agree vaping is far less harmful than smoking yet it continues to be demonised and restricted

Imagine if Britain led the world in a new electronic industry, both in production and consumption, if independent British manufacturers had a worldwide reputation for innovation and quality, were based mainly in the north and were exporting to Asia. And that this innovation was saving lives on a huge scale while saving consumers over £100 billion so far.

All of this is true of electronic cigarettes. Britain leads the world at vaping. We have taken to it more enthusiastically than any other nation, consuming more than twice as many e-cigarettes as the average European country. There is a thriving manufacturing industry here, even exporting from Blackburn to China. It is probably the fastest-growing industry in the country. Few innovations have happened faster or seen Britain lead the way so much.

The result has been a steep fall in smoking. In 2016 only 15.8 per cent of adults smoked, the second lowest number in Europe, compared with 19.6 per cent in 2012. With the shameful exception of the World Health Organisation, virtually all bodies involved in public health — Public Health England, the Department of Health, Cancer Research UK, Action on Smoking and Health, the Royal College of Physicians, the British Psychological Society, even at last the British Medical Association — now agree that vaping is an effective way of quitting smoking, is much safer than smoking and attracts almost no one except smokers: only 1-3 per cent of vapers have never smoked.

This success is not the result of deliberate government policy. Four years ago, when I started writing about this, the government was lobbying Brussels to get e-cigarettes banned except on prescription, which would have killed the revolution. The only thing the British government has done differently is not get in the way of consumers driving the change. Australia still bans the sale of nicotine-containing e-cigarettes altogether.

The industry is dominated by independent small businesses with no links to the tobacco industry: there are more than 1,100 vape businesses in Britain. The Independent British Vape Trade Association says in evidence to a parliamentary inquiry: “Unlike traditional cessation methods, vaping is empowering. It represents a market-based, user driven, public health insurgency. That is why it is so successful. No taxpayers’ money has been spent.”

Now, following a positive view of e-cigarettes in its Tobacco Control Plan, the government’s “Stoptober” campaign for the first time advocated that people use e-cigarettes to help quit smoking. Yet just as the government joins the vaping bandwagon, progress is faltering, mainly because of irresponsible and wholly untrue headlines in tabloid newspapers claiming that vaping is as “bad as fags” for you. Just as the clinical and toxicological evidence has come in overwhelmingly in favour of the far greater safety of vaping, public opinion has begun swinging the other way: 26 per cent of people now erroneously believe vaping to be “at least as harmful as smoking”, up from 7 per cent in 2013.

New rules from Europe are not helping. The introduction of the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) this year demolished what was until then a sensible set of rules on e-cigarette advertising. Now, whereas manufacturers of (prescribed) nicotine gums and patches can advertise their products, the manufacturers of e-cigarettes cannot advertise at all through television, radio, newspapers, commercial email or companies’ own websites.

Nor can they make health claims, even though e-cigarettes are far more effective quit aids than patches or gums. The Advertising Standards Authority is consulting on whether to remove this prohibition, and the government is to partner with the industry to promote vaping. Yet the companies themselves are forbidden from telling the world about their products through these channels till we leave the EU. Madness.

The EU regulations also ban large e-liquid containers and strong e-liquids, both vital to the heaviest smokers when they start to quit, so a black market is developing. Ironically, the EU directive has given some European states, including Belgium, an excuse to ban cross-border trade in vape products. So much for the single market.

Meanwhile, businesses are forcing vapers to mix with smokers in specially designated smoking areas. This reinforces the false message that vaping is as dangerous as smoking. If you have to go out in the cold every few hours to vape alongside people puffing carcinogenic toxins at you, then why bother to switch?

One of the beauties of e-cigarettes is that whereas smokers tend to finish each cigarette once they have started, vapers can have single puffs at more regular intervals so their nicotine levels stay moderate rather than spiking up and down. This is one reason vapers find it easier to reduce their nicotine use over time. But if the smoking/vaping area is a long walk from your desk, your employer is not going to want you popping out more often than a smoker. You could even argue that an employer is breaking the law by forcing a non-smoker (vaper) to share a space with a smoker.


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The New Nicotine Alliance has launched a campaign to challenge properties to drop their policies of treating vapers like smokers. After all, vapers do not emit smoke; their vapour does not even smell unless flavoured; there are no known harms to bystanders from second-hand vapour. Vaping can be done discreetly. I’ve watched someone vape stealthily even on an aircraft. (I neither vape nor smoke myself, by the way, and have no financial skin in this game to disclose.)

Public Health England specifically recommends “that e-cigarette use is not covered by smoke-free legislation and should not routinely be included in the requirements of an organisation’s smoke-free policy”. A recent report from the Freedom Association found that local councils were ignoring this recommendation and treating vapers as if they were smokers. Wetherspoon pubs ban vaping in all the areas where smoking is banned, even outdoors.

Vaping should be like mobile phone use: something that you do with consideration for others and covered by rules of etiquette, not prohibitions. And, as Professor Peter Hajek of Queen Mary University of London puts it, “Public health would benefit if the [vaping] section of the TPD is scrapped as soon as possible and if, in the meantime, it is ignored as much as is legally possible.”

Matt Ridley 18th December 2017

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