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Head in sand

Last Wednesday, the All Party Parliamentary Group for E-Cigarettes convened in Committee Room 18 at the House of Commons and the NNA was represented.

The subject of discussion was a very promising proposal to change the policy towards risk-reduced products on the parliamentary estate. Namely, that parliament – in keeping with the goal to “maximise the availability of safer alternatives to smoking” in the government’s latest Tobacco Control Plan – should be setting an example to businesses up and down the country.

The proposals – hopefully to be inserted into the parliamentary handbook for all members and staff – were to permit vaping in all outside locations and all bars and cafeterias, as well as single use offices and other offices, dependent on the agreement of colleagues. It was emphasised in the supporting documents that vapers should be expected to be considerate and mindful of the concerns of others. A common-sense approach, and one that the NNA can heartily endorse.

The NNA was invited to give testimony and our representative for the day – one of four from different stakeholders - was Jessica Harding. Industry was represented by Dan Marchant of Vape Club and the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) also provided a spokesman to explain the current position in pubs up and down the country. The last of the panel was a union official who spoke with a UNISON hat on as well as commenting on behalf of the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

Jessica acquitted herself very well, being the NNA’s expert on workplace policies in her role developing the Challenging Prohibition campaign. The representative from the BBPA also contributed with some useful insights into how the UK’s hospitality industry estates view vaping and the varying rules that licensees apply.

Jessica emphasised to the BBPA that their insistence on licensees being responsible for their own policies on their properties is one on which we can readily agree. As our position statement makes clear on vaping bans, “we do not support the statutory prohibition of e-cigarette use in public spaces, enclosed or outdoors”, but that is not to say we do not agree that property owners should be entitled to set their own policy as they see fit. The proviso to that is that property owners should be informed enough to assess what their policies should look like based on objective evidence rather than scare stories. We highlighted that large chains could be better informed on the subject rather than pronouncing from board level when local knowledge of clientele might be better for both the business and consumers alike, and we were pleased that our suggestions were received with an open mind.

Sadly, this was not the case with the UNISON/TUC representative. Faced with a panel of MPs who had a good working knowledge of the vaping debate, all referrals to health authorities who are supportive of e-cigarette use in workplaces was met with a stock response of “The TUC disagrees”. Quite why the TUC is qualified to disagree with, for example, the Royal College of Physicians wasn’t explained.

In his defence, the representative may well – as he stated at the start of proceedings – not have the power to change TUC policy, but it seemed clear that he attended with a refusal to open his mind to the potential positives of permitting vaping in workplaces and feed it back to his unions.

Worse still, to back up his argument, he responded to every citation of reasoned research into vaping with much-debunked misinformation that could only have been gleaned from the pages of newspapers which revel in creating scare stories. Almost without exception, all were mentioned in support of the TUC’s policy that vaping should be treated exactly the same as smoking. Nicotine is a carcinogen; we don’t know what is in the vapour; it is a gateway to smoking for children; if you’ve seen an article fostering doubt, it was referenced.

We found this to be very disappointing, especially since most of the concerns that were mentioned would have been published on media with which TUC supporters might be expected to roundly disagree with, and even openly despise. Therefore, for an organisation which is set up to defend workers’ rights to exhibit a perpetually closed mind in front of MPs - who are attempting to facilitate an open and evidential discussion - with the only outcome being that vaping union members will be denied access to harm reduction by their employers on the basis of myths and ignorance, was unfortunate.

We can only hope that some of the wise interventions from MPs at the session were conveyed back to TUC headquarters. We would also hope that current poor TUC guidance – expressed in this blog which is high on the list of Google results when searching for workplace vaping policies – might be amended now that the stance of the British Medical Association, a doctors’ union, has recently changed for the better.

If we are to see positive changes in public health surrounding nicotine use, it is important that all parties are amenable to open discussions, and that this will also involve organisations availing themselves of information with an open mind. Burying heads in the sand might make for an easy life, but it doesn’t facilitate progress.