You may have heard rumblings that “the EU wants to ban electronic cigarettes”. This is not entirely true; the new EU tobacco directive proposes regulating electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) under medicines legislation and there is fiery debate as to whether this is appropriate.
During the last few years e-cigarettes, devices resembling a cigarette or a pen/torch which enable the inhalation of nicotine containing vapour, have sprung up across Europe including in the UK.
Many e-cigarette users call their habit “vaping” and some prefer to call their devices “personal vaporisers” or PVs. E-cigarettes use a liquid containing nicotine, the addictive component of tobacco, but do not contain the many other components of tobacco including those which cause cancer.
Public health organisations such as ASH, the UK anti-smoking charity, agree that e-cigarettes are a useful harm reduction tool for smokers who want to quit but cannot.
E-cigarettes are currently regulated in a rather disparate fashion under general consumer products legislation and users (I have been cheeky enough to stop people in the street!) tell me that product quality varies significantly. The reputable e-cigarette manufacturers are keen to have high standards of regulation so the poor quality products are driven out of the market.
The European Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety committee of which I am a member is currently examining the proposed new EU tobacco directive, which updates tobacco control measures to discourage smoking and reduce smoking related deaths. See the proposal here.
The tobacco directive proposes classifying e-cigarettes containing more than 4mg/ml of nicotine as medicines, thus requiring them to obtain a marketing authorisation either from the European Medicines Agency or more likely from a national medicines agency such as the UK MHRA like nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products such as patches and chewing gum.
On average, e-cigarettes contain around 18mg/ml of nicotine, so most current e-cigarettes would be regulated as medicines. However, e-cigarette companies and users say that a nicotine level of less than 4mg/ml is too low to satisfy the nicotine cravings of ex-smokers and risks a return to tobacco.
I am not yet convinced that e-cigarettes would be best regulated as medicines, but they do need a robust regulatory regime that will keep good quality products easily available for existing (ex-smoker) users, without making them attractive to new (non-smoker) users, especially young people.
I suggest taking the following into consideration:
• While e-cigarettes are far less harmful than tobacco, long term health impacts are not yet fully understood, so generic health warnings (“may damage your health”?) could be appropriate until more precise warnings are possible;
• EU wide standards on the quality and safety of devices and liquids are needed;
E-cigarettes should not be marketed in a way that “renormalises” smoking or broadens their appeal to non-smokers, especially young people. This may require a minimum age of purchase, forbidding free samples or below cost pricing, a ban on certain flavours and restricting advertising near schools, TV adverts except late night, adverts in magazines/websites for young people and e-cigarette use in public places.
A final point is that any regulatory regime would not be introduced overnight, but would instead have a transition period of several years, so there is no danger of products disappearing from one day to the next.
A more detailed version of this article can be read here along with nearly 70 comments mainly from e-cigarette users who are former smokers.
* Rebecca Taylor is a member of Islington LibDems and the former MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber.