Kirsty Williams AM writes… Welsh Liberal Democrats oppose Labour’s e-cigarette ban

Electronic Cigarette InhalationAs a liberal I’m deeply sceptical of knee-jerk reactions to issues of public importance, especially when there’s a severe lack of evidence to support your claim. This was a view I thought I shared with the Welsh Labour Health Minister, Mark Drakeford, after he said in the debate on my minimum nurse staffing levels bill that “in pursuing public policy, legislation should almost always be a last, rather than a first resort.”

You can imagine my surprise, therefore, when the Welsh Labour Government announced plans to ban the use of electronic cigarettes in public places, along the same lines as the current smoking ban.

I called Welsh Labour’s plans into question as I led a debate in the Senedd on this matter earlier this month, asking the Health Minister to produce the evidence that he had to support this ban. Despite assuring me and other Assembly Members that there was “mounting evidence” which he’d make available to me “immediately after the debate”, it was two weeks until I received anything from him. This amounted to one single paper.

I’d hardly call that “mounting evidence”.

In fact, the evidence seems to be mounting against the Welsh Labour Government. The consensus seems to be that there are substantial gains to be had from promoting the use of e-cigs, especially for those using them instead of traditional tobacco cigarettes. Professor John Britton, a tobacco adviser at the Royal College of Physicians, says that “if all the smokers in Britain stopped smoking  cigarettes and started smoking e-cigarettes we would save 5 million deaths in people who are alive today. It’s a massive public health prize.”

Today, a group of over 50 researchers have called on the World Health Organisation to recognise that e-cigarettes, and the alternative they provide to smoking, should be part of the solution rather than the problem. Even Mark Drakeford himself has admitted in the past that he wasn’t aware of a second-hand smoke effect of e-cigarettes.

I was, and continue to be, a strong supporter of the smoking ban. But its success was based on the evidence brought forward beforehand that showed it was necessary. The shame is that Welsh Labour claim this ban would be in the interests of public health, when the reality is it could well have an adverse effect on the people of Wales.

There is by no means a clear consensus on e-cigarettes, which is why I and the Welsh Liberal Democrats are encouraging more research to be done into the effects they have on their users and those around them. But unless evidence clearly shows that e-cigs pose a public health risk, the Welsh Liberal Democrats will continue to lead the opposition in Wales on any restrictions on their use.

* Kirsty Williams AM is Cabinet Secretary for Education in the Welsh Government

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42 Comments

  • David Evershed 29th May '14 - 5:23pm

    Good to see there are still some liberal views within the Liberal Democrats.

    Government is far to keen to interfere with individual freedoms.

    It is the Labour Party which wants to intervene in business and individul’s lives.

    Lib Dems want free markets, free trade, free schooling, free health service and individual freedom.

  • Stuart Mitchell 29th May '14 - 5:51pm

    “This amounted to one single paper.”

    The BMA’s briefing paper (now over a year old) claims to have references to three papers on the existence of “passive vaping”. See page 5 :-

    http://bma.org.uk/-/media/files/pdfs/working%20for%20change/improving%20health/tobaccoecigarettespublicplaces_jan2013.pdf

    However their main objection seems to be more of a social one i.e. that the use of these things will undermine the smoking ban and make smoking-type behaviour the norm again. They are particularly concerned about the effect within hospitals.

  • Richard Dean 29th May '14 - 6:19pm

    Is this campaign a vote winner?

  • In fact, the evidence seems to be mounting against the Welsh Labour Government. The consensus seems to be that there are substantial gains to be had from promoting the use of e-cigs, especially for those using them instead of traditional tobacco cigarettes.

    This isn’t true. There is no consensus. That’s why there’s significant debate.

    The Labour Government are following evidence that says that e-cig use may encourage the renormalisation of smoking, so it may be desirable to stop this.

    There are also genuine health risks surrounding e-cigs, they contain carcinogenic compounds (albeit at lower concentration than normal cigarettes), nicotine is a harmful drug by itself, addiction has huge costs to society, quite independent of smoking related diseases, and so on.

    CRUK have a decent summary of the evidence surrounding all of this.

    http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-us/we-develop-policy/our-policy-on-tobacco-control-and-cancer/our-policy-on-harm-reduction-and

    Please don’t turn this complex situation into a target for simplistic political posturing, it will benefit no one.

  • @Richard – if it’s right, then it doesn’t have to be a vote winner. If we took that approach we’d have copied UKIP the other week…

    This is a sensible, Liberal position – if it doesn’t harm others (or until it’s proved one way or the other) then we should let well alone.

  • Nick T Nick Thornsby 29th May '14 - 7:12pm

    Great stuff, Kirsty. Fantastic to see personal liberalism being so robustly defended.

  • Richard Dean 29th May '14 - 7:34pm

    @Keith Legg
    So why would anyone be surprised at the current disastrous state of the LibDem vote?
    Remember, being voted into power is the best way to get things done!

  • Nick Thornsby confuses personal liberalism with unregulated capitalism.

    Not so much evidence based policy as prejudice based policy.

  • The leader we need. Ticks all the boxes except not an MP, does that matter?

  • Stuart said: “They are particularly concerned about the effect within hospitals.”

    Seems over the top. However, even so, what has that got to do with banning it in ALL public places?!

  • Cllr Mark Wright 29th May '14 - 10:40pm

    Good liberal stuff, well done!

  • Well done Kirsty. There is a case for regulation to control the content of the liquids but e-cigs were the only thing that worked to get me off tobacco. 15 months clean that would not have happened without them. Is there any evidence that the vested interests of the nicotine replacement pharmaceuticals and/or tobacco giants are lobbying heavily against e-cigs?

  • “Good liberal stuff, well done!”

    Disagree. The article refers to a specifically liberal perspective only in terms of being “sceptical of knee-jerk reactions”, which is fair enough. The rest of the article proceeds to argue on the basis of the evidence or its absence. In my humble opinion, that gets the priorities right. The primary reason for accepting e-cigs should be the belief that they probably do more good than harm. Not abstract liberalism, please.

  • vaping is clearly a massive gateway out of smoking

    Is it?

    My concern would be that smokers would take up smoking e-cigarettes instead of giving up.

    Is there any evidence that this doesn’t happen — that that e-cigarettes are a stepping-stone to giving up properly, rather than just a crutch that allows continuing dependence, just in a less physically harmful form?

  • Pleased to see this. All too often the party has been too ready to adopt the bossy, infantilising agenda of the health lobby so I’m glad Kirsty Williams is drawing the line at this.

    JohnTilley – This is not an argument about capitalism, ‘unregulated’ or otherwise; it’s about the proper relationship between the state and the citizen and whether we treat adults as being capable of making their own choices.

    (This is not to deny that there may sometimes be reasons for limiting that scope of choice, but it should not be justified using the doublethink that it is somehow paradoxically increasing people’s freedom. As Isaiah Berlin put it, ‘everything is what it is, and not another thing: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience’. And to manipulate men, to propel them towards goals which you – the social reformer – see but they may not, is to deny their human essence, to treat them as objects without wills of their own, and therefore to degrade them’.)

  • With apologies to David Allen for my detour into abstract liberalism… albeit with some provocation!

  • From a liberal PoV, why is it relevant to this debate whether vaping is a gateway into or out of smoking? Surely the only liberal reason to support the public smoking ban (which I do) is passive smoking. So the only question relevant to a proposal to ban public e-smoking is does it harm others if allowed in enclosed spaces?

    Authoritarian proposals like this almost make me want to start smoking in protest. Aside from being profoundly illiberal, if people want to ban public e-smoking in an effort to nanny everyone out of “harmful behaviour” then why not ban public drinking and public consumption of sugar- and grease-laden fast foods? Obesity and alcohol consumption cause just as many health problems as smoking so a little consistency would be nice. The only difference is that unlike passive smoking we don’t force our alcohol or Big Macs down other people’s throats, so there was a clear rationale for the current public smoking ban. If the rationale changes to being about “denormalisation” or “gateways” then that’s pure nanny statism of a kind I would expect from Labour/Conservatives but would hope not to see in the LDs.

    There is a massive difference between protecting people from others and protecting people from themselves. By mixing up the passive smoking issue with the benefits/downsides of e-cigs in general, I fear that crucial distinction is being lost.

  • Richard Dean 30th May '14 - 3:26am

    @Catherine
    I don’t know, but I do know that it’s a whole lot nicer not to have to breathe other people’s smoke in bars, restaurants, buses and bus stations, trains and train stations, and the street. As a lifelong smoker who gave up 10 years ago, and who knows how difficult it was and how easy it can be to start again, I certainly don’t want to breathe other people’s addictive nicotine!

    The following website reports that about 25% of adults in Wales smoked in 2005, and the target was to reduce this to 17%. So essentially this campaign is designed to “benefit” at most 25 – 17 = 8% of the electorate, and to dis-benefit those in the electorate like me who don’t want to be encouraged to start smoking again or don’t want their children to. That’s a good way to electoral suicide, isn’t it?
    http://www.wales.nhs.uk/sitesplus/documents/888/WCH%20smoking%20ban%20report%20E%20final.pdf

  • Eddie Sammon 30th May '14 - 4:12am

    Good work Kirsty. Now it’s our job to shout at the rooftops about it.

  • Joe Otton

    g, What evidence are you referring to that e-cigs may renormalise smoking.

    The page you link to has a broken link to its May 2014 briefing, and the May 2013 report below it mentions concerns that smoking may be renormalised, and that vaping may be a gateway to smoking but that this needs to be substantiated. (page 14)

    Meanwhile vaping is clearly a massive gateway out of smoking. I’m a little bemused by objections to something that is saving the lives of millions of smokers, now vaping ex-smokers, on the grounds that we can speculate that there may be a little traffic the other way.
    k
    I’ve emailed CRUK about the broken links.

    Frankly, it’s a bit absurd to on one hand to say that there needs to be more evidence on renormalisation of smoking and gateway affects, then assert, without any evidence at all, ‘it is clearly a massive gateway out of smoking’.

    When we have relatively little evidence, and the risks of harm are huge, we should proceed with caution and certainly demand more evidence rather than replace the need for data with political rhetoric and abstract philosophy.

    This is a public health issue, not an issue of freedom, nobody is proposing banning e-cigs, the debate is over how strict regulation should be.

  • Andrew Emmerson 30th May '14 - 8:25am

    imo anyone who thinks these things normalise smoking haven’t seen them being used.

    I’m also quite glad that there’s at least a hint of ideology in here. An item that purely gives out water vapour and has no potential to do damage to anyone but the user, should never be banned in public. It’s absolutely right we stand up for the liberal idea of personal freedom.

  • Simon McGrath 30th May '14 - 9:20am

    Can KIrsty stand for Westminster so she can be our next Leader ?

  • @Joe Otten
    “Meanwhile vaping is clearly a massive gateway out of smoking. I’m a little bemused by objections to something that is saving the lives of millions of smokers”

    In the spirit of the proverbial Lib Dem evidence-based approach, I’m sure you can substantiate those claims. They seem well over the top compared to the figures in the BMA report I linked to, which indicates that only a very small proportion of smokers have used them as a means of giving up.

    The point you are making is bogus anyway. Nobody is objecting to vaping per se. People are objecting to vaping in enclosed public spaces, which is another matter. I couldn’t care less how much of this stuff people inhale, I just don’t want them forcing me to inhale it in a restaurant or any other public place.

    As I’ve pointed out before, whenever you see a Lib Dem politician boasting about how oh-so evidence-based they are, you can guarantee that the following distinctly non-evidence-based behaviours will be exhibited: (a) ad hominem attacks and intemperate language directed at those who disagree; (b) rampant cherry-picking of evidence; (c) no attempt whatsoever to come up with a measured and evidence-based response to the supposedly non-evidence-based claims of opponents.

    @Bob
    “My concern would be that smokers would take up smoking e-cigarettes instead of giving up. Is there any evidence that this doesn’t happen”

    The BMA report I linked to earlier provides evidence that this DOES happen. It quotes a survey which showed that 80% of e-cig users continue to smoke, and use the e-cigs “primarily as a substitute where smoking is not allowed” – in other words, these devices are used as a means of cocking a snoop at the smoking ban.

  • Bob 29th May ’14 – 11:50pm
    Is there any evidence … ….., — that that e-cigarettes are a stepping-stone to giving up properly, rather than just a crutch that allows continuing dependence,

    There is of course clear marketing evidence as to the dangers of e-cigarettes. That they allow continued dependence. Simply check out which large multi national interests bought up virtually all the e-cig companies shortly after they started to be a significant factor in the market. It probably will not surprise you that it was Big Tobacco.

    Who has an interest in keeping people smoking traditional cigarettes?

    Big Tobacco’s enormous profits depend on keeping people addicted to nicotine, smoking cigarettes and of course on recruiting children to smoking to replace those customers who die from smoking.

    So would they buy up the e-cig companies and make major financial investments in those companies if they thought that e-cigs were a gateway to giving up smoking? As the Americans say — Go Figure.

  • Eddie Sammon 30th May '14 - 9:46am

    John Tilley’s comment made me laugh: “If Kirsty Williams has any sense she will look down the list of people in this thread who are singing her praises and then seriously reconsider what she has done.”.

    I was going to offer a positive with a word of warning similar to David Allen about having a hard look at the evidence and avoiding “abstract liberalism”, but I didn’t want to be negative and couldn’t be bothered getting into a debate about it.

  • JohnTilley

    There is of course clear marketing evidence as to the dangers of e-cigarettes. That they allow continued dependence. Simply check out which large multi national interests bought up virtually all the e-cig companies shortly after they started to be a significant factor in the market. It probably will not surprise you that it was Big Tobacco.

    Aside from any ulterior motive, it does make complete sense for Big Tobacco to buy up an industry that genuinely threatens its profits. Any big commercial sector would behave the same.

    That said, there’s an easy way to divine the intentions of Big Tobacco.
    1) If they cared about public health they would cut down on tobacco growing and cigarette manufacturing in favour of moving smokers to e-cigs.

    2) If they cared about public health they would not argue against advertising and usage restrictions on e-cigs to discourage non-smokers using them.

    On the contrary, they continue to spend on tobacco and cigarette manufacturing, and have lobbied strenuously, and at great expense, against restrictions. Therefore, they do not care about public health and need tight regulation lest protecting their profits comes at a massive cost to the country.

  • g 30th May ’14 – 10:08am

    I agree with your conclusion about Big Tobacco –
    ” ………, they continue to spend on tobacco and cigarette manufacturing, and have lobbied strenuously, and at great expense, against restrictions. Therefore, they do not care about public health and need tight regulation lest protecting their profits comes at a massive cost to the country.”

    If you have not read “The Cigarette Century” by Allan Brandt of Harvard Medical – it will answer your question about Big Tobacco and public health better than I ever could.
    It is an outstanding piece of scholarship whilst also a powerful indictment of those who continue to profit from millions of deaths worldwide and continue to recruit children to consume their deadly product.

  • Michael Carre 30th May '14 - 9:20pm

    Absolutely love Kirsty.

  • Steve Comer 31st May '14 - 2:28am

    Simon McGrath said: “Can KIrsty stand for Westminster so she can be our next Leader ?”
    She clearly can – I just hope she will!

    This is an excellent illustration of how a distinctly liberal position could also be popular. We must in the forefront of campaigns against the nanny state, and increasing demands by professional groups like teachers and the health lobby to make it stronger, and more intrusive.

  • Alex Sabine 30th May ’14 – 12:09am
    This is not an argument about capitalism, ‘unregulated’ or otherwise; it’s about the proper relationship between the state and the citizen and whether we treat adults as being capable of making their own choices.

    But it is not about adults is it? Most smokers become addicted to nicotine whilst children as a result of the deliberate sales and advertising efforts of Big Tobacco, the very people who also sell e-cigarettes enabling the, to get round the advertising ban so that every child watching a football match on TV can see smoking adverts, the word cigarette etc beamed into their living room.

    Quoting Isaiah Berlin out of context as if he was an ardent fan of unregulated capitalism might be considered to be a tad underhand by Isaiah himself.

  • The reason to invest in an industry that threatens to take a chunk out of your own profits is that you can’t stop it anyway, and you reduce the risk to your own business because you have an each-way bet. People who are investing only in the old technology or only in the new technology take a bigger risk, so you are actually best placed to do it. Fujifilm investing in digital cameras and Kodak not investing in digital cameras is a good example of why to do this. I understand some oil companies have big investments in solar power too.

    Obviously if there is advertising issues then that needs regulating.

  • Alex Sabine 31st May '14 - 4:16pm

    As I made clear, I don’t see this as a debate about this bogeyman called ‘unregulated capitalism’, so I clearly wasn’t praying Isaiah Berlin in aid for that purpose. The quotations related instead to personal autonomy, which he was clearly a strong believer in.

    What concerns me about these public health campaigns is the wide scope those seeking to ban things give to the old Mill harm principle, as if our liberal forebears were mainly concerned with limiting the scope of free private conduct rather than enlarging it. Thus, sugar taxes are justified because of the cost of obesity to the NHS, the smoking ban in private clubs on the grounds of the employees’ health, bans on e-cigs based on flimsy or inconclusive evidence of second-hand effects, or based on generalised attacks on evil corporations, etc etc.

  • Anything that would be allowed if money was not involved should also be allowed if money was involved. The size of the businesses involved is a distraction.

  • Alex Sabine

    Are you suggesting that Mill favoured the marketing of addictive products to children ?

  • The references to “smoking” e-cigs are misleading. There is no smoke, only vapour. Logically passive inhalation of the steam is no more likely to contain nicotine or do harm than the idea that inhaling other people’s coffee aromas is going to give you a caffeine hit. Some scientific evidence to prove the logic would be good. I am an ex-smoker not an e-cig smoker. I was still addicted to nicotine but I can control the nicotine content in my liquid exactly and I cut it back by tiny increments so now there are only traces and those will go soon. And I’ve not gained any weight or got stressed out during the process. Banning or over-regulating things just drives them underground and into the clutches of organised crime. Enforce some basic quality standards on liquids by all means but if you want to stop people *smoking* this route should be encouraged not stamped on by misguided nanny state proponents.

  • SteveR

    Banning or over-regulating things just drives them underground and into the clutches of organised crime. Enforce some basic quality standards on liquids by all means but if you want to stop people *smoking* this route should be encouraged not stamped on by misguided nanny state proponents.

    Nobody is proposing banning e-cigs. Nor is anyone proposing to limit access to them by existing addicts.

  • Matt (Bristol) 1st Jun '14 - 9:42pm

    I am not (yet) in favour of a full-fledge ban on ‘vaping’ (horrible phrase) in public, but feel strongly that regulation of what is simply yet another form of nicotine addiction should be considered; specifically some clear and pretty stiff regulations on how they are marketed and who to, as there are so many opportunities here for tobacco companies to use e-cigs to hoover up a younger audience – this is about a landgrab for a new market, not (as is claimed) moving the existing addicts on to a ‘safer’ form.

  • Patricia Waters 2nd Jun '14 - 10:31pm

    Are Welsh Labour denying the evidence given by 53 world experts to the WHO?
    I would think they probably know better than anyone else?
    What more proof is required.
    “We don’t know the long term effect” is quoted over and over again but if ecigs are as severely restricted as the EU wants the world will never know the long term effects!
    Based on all the current evidence they will save literally millions of lives. Governments and Health Authorities must take a ‘leap of faith’ because nothing can be as damaging to health as lit tobacco.

  • Why not campaign on this kind of thing in the next European elections? Parliamentarians generally publicly disagree with the majority in their parliament on at least some issues if they are deserving of credibility and reelection.

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