E-cigs: one cheer for PHE report

Posted on August 19, 2015

Finally, it seems, we may have reached a potential tipping point in the attitude of public-health groups and bodies towards vaping. Public Health England's new report, E-cigarettes: an evidence update, states that the 'current best estimate is that e-cigarette use is around 95 per cent less harmful to health than smoking'. This declaration should hopefully put to rest the scaremongering about e-cigs, which has put off many potential users. As PHE notes, recent surveys suggest many people think e-cigs are at least as harmful as tobacco cigarettes (22.1 per cent in 2015, up from 8.1 per cent in 2013) - and public health advocates have been at the forefront of creating that false impression.

Nonetheless there is much to be concerned about here too. First, the same old endgame applies: PHE still wants cigarette smoking eradicated. As Professor Kevin Fenton notes in the PHE press release: 'Smoking remains England’s number one killer and the best thing a smoker can do is to quit completely, now and forever.' And as long as this paternalistic attitude remains, we can expect plenty more attempts to restrict the use of e-cigs, too, 'just in case'. The most obvious example is the Welsh government's proposed indoor vaping ban, but there are plenty of calls for restrictions on advertising, product sizes, flavours and more - most notably embodied in the EU's revised Tobacco Products Directive.

Many have welcomed PHE's call for e-cigs to be made available on the NHS - something that a few open-minded smoking cessation services are already doing. But that would mean that e-cigs would need medical licences. Obtaining such licences is a hugely expensive process that will be beyond the means of the many small companies now doing a fantastic job of popularising and innovating e-cigs. Such a process would turn e-cigs from an enjoyable consumer product into a medical device - a thoroughly unappealing image. E-cigs need no more regulation than coffee or smartphones: any particular product should be safe to consume and use. That's it.

While many vapers will be rejoicing at PHE's headline conclusions - which for those who have used e-cigs for any length of time amount to stating the bleedin' obvious - the very fact that we need the official seal of approval in order to be allowed to enjoy nicotine should still anger anyone with any instinct for freedom and personal choice.