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A further shift will unlock greater potential

On Tuesday during questions to the Under-Secretary of State for Health in Westminster, Nicola Blackwood replied to a query from Conservative MP Adam Afriyie about the use of e-cigarettes and, specifically, the negative outcomes that will undoubtedly arise from implementation of the EU TPD.

The Government are very clear that vaping is significantly less harmful than continuing to smoke. Under the current regulatory regime, huge numbers of smokers are successfully using these innovative products as an effective quitting tool. We have already committed to reviewing the TPD and we will fully explore the opportunities that Brexit may provide, but until exit negotiations are concluded we remain a full member of the EU.

We note and very much welcome Ms Blackwood confirming that there will be a review of the terms of the TPD. They were hastily-drafted and implemented largely from a position of ignorance by MEPs and their advisers in 2014, and we still maintain that many of the requirements are not only unnecessary but also harmful.

In the intervening period since the TPD was formulated there has been a shift in perception – backed by a solid evidence base - of the benefits of vaping and tobacco harm reduction in general, so it is of great interest that a government minister is considering the TPD’s efficacy and legitimacy in a post-Brexit United Kingdom.

However, there is another small but significant shift in policy required if the full public health potential of tobacco harm reduction methods is to be realised, and it is only the UK government which can affect the change required to facilitate this.

It is still officially the government position that e-cigarettes, particularly, should only be used as a smoking cessation aid and not as a recreational product. Indeed, the Department of Health’s representative in the House of Lords, Lord Prior of Brampton, responded on Tuesday to his shadow Lord Hunt of Kings Heath’s support of e-cigarettes by saying that “better than vaping is not to vape or smoke cigarettes or anything else at all”. This is to fundamentally misunderstand the positive public health role that harm reduction can play.

Lord Hunt – on the other hand – understands the debate very well in his position as President of the Royal Society of Public Health, one of many UK health organisations to enthusiastically embrace vaping. The Royal College of Physicians has argued that e-cigarettes should be “promoted as widely as possible”, while the government’s pre-eminent public health advisers Public Health England recognise the advantages of vaping and have consulted with consumer groups such as the NNA on the matter. Guidance from the National Centre for Smoking Cessation and Training has also rightly warned against being alarmed about recreational vaping, stating that “we are not a ‘stop nicotine service’ and if we think getting people off their e-cigarette is a good use of our time, we are ignoring a far more important opportunity to help people quit and to stay off cigarettes.”.

With all this wise counsel from respected advisers moving in the same direction of travel, it is arguably time for the government to revisit and re-consider its stubborn policy towards recreational use of nicotine.

As the NNA has consistently advocated, a vast number of people derive great pleasure from nicotine just as millions enjoy coffee containing caffeine – both judged to be on the same toxicity level by experts – yet we do not hear of government campaigns to wean the public, or even MPs themselves, off coffee. Smokers are not ill and do not require a medical intervention; in fact, for many the very idea is anathema and would deter them from switching to a less harmful alternative.

The huge and swift success of vaping in the UK has occurred not because it is viewed exclusively as a smoking cessation device – quite the opposite – instead the success is attributable to vaping being an enjoyable, healthier pastime free from the pressure of real or imagined state coercion. If full nicotine cessation then ensues then so be it, however that should not be the sole consideration.

Nicola Blackwood and Lord Prior have been presented with a largely cost-neutral free market solution to their goal of reducing smoker prevalence, they should seize it by embracing recreational vaping, like many of their most respected public health advisers have. In doing so, and eschewing the siren voices of those who value moral judgements over concrete health benefits by calling for regulations, restrictions and bans, they can unlock the full advantageous potential of e-cigarettes and tobacco harm reduction.