The UK’s burgeoning e-cigarette industry offers the greatest gift to public health since the discovery of penicillin. We must nurture its growth, not stifle it, says William Walter.
E-cigarettes save lives. There are around 2.6 million ‘vapers’ in the UK, of whom one-third are former smokers and two-thirds are so-called ‘dual-users’: vapers who still smoke. Public Health England estimates e-cigarettes are 95 per cent less harmful than smoking. And this differential is important. Half of all regular smokers die from their addiction. In the UK, just shy of 100,000 lives are lost every year because of smoking related diseases.
Time for a bit of maths. Assuming Public Health England’s estimate of the relative harm of smoking to vaping translates directly to lives lost (a pretty big ask), it would mean that in the UK alone vaping has already saved the lives of some 407,550 people (95 per cent (relative harm) of one-half (number of smokers that die from their habit) of one-third (proportion of vapers who have given up smoking) of 2.6 million (number of vapers in the UK)). Obviously, this kind of calculation is racked with difficulties. Aside from the relative harm assumption, the calculation also assumes that the third of vapers who have given up traditional cigarettes won’t go back to them, and that by switching to vaping they will not incur any of the legacy health consequences their smoking habit has gifted them. But, conversely, the calculation takes no account of the two-thirds of vapers who are ‘dual users’. It can be reasonably assumed that by taking up vaping, these smokers have reduced their regular consumption of cigarettes, which in turn would lead to commensurate health benefits and, hopefully, a reduction in lives lost.
Even if this calculation’s wrong and ditching the fags in favour of vaping only results in, say, half the estimated lives saved my calculation predicts, it would still mean 203,775 lives have been saved. These figures certainly don’t seem unrealistic given Public Health England publicly estimated that up to 76,000 lives would be saved every year if all smokers switched to electronic cigarettes.
But what about all those for whom vaping’s a gateway on to smoking? A legitimate concern, but so far the evidence doesn’t support it. It’s estimated that fewer than one per cent of vapers had never smoked before they began vaping. In fact, since electronic cigarettes have been on the market, smoking prevalence has declined among children.
Another concern are the longer-term effects of e-cigarettes on vaper’s health. While there’s a greater bank of research regarding the effects nicotine has on the human body, less is known about the effects of ingesting nicotine and some of the other chemicals present in e-liquids such as diacetyl and glycerol, via the lungs. But even the worst-case scenario of vaping’s long-term effect pales in comparison to the known long-term effects of traditional cigarettes on public health. Consumers and policy makers alike are confronted with a choice between two products: one that is known to kill one-in-two of its users, or another which independent medical experts deem to be 95 per cent safer, but whose long-term effects are not known, and will not be known for at least another decade or two, but are certain to be less than those of traditional cigarettes.
E-cigarettes are a game changer. For the first time since the introduction of the modern-day cigarette over a century ago, smokers have a real and viable alternative, allowing them to enjoy the pleasurable effects of nicotine, but without the ensuing negative health consequences associated with smoking tobacco.
But there’s a catch. Rather than capitalise on the greatest gift to public health since the discovery of penicillin, officials are caught like a rabbit in the headlights. Meddling mandarins in Brussels have conspired with bumbling bureaucrats in Westminster to transpose arbitrary restrictions on e-cigarettes that threaten to squander our chance to rescue countless smokers from the perils of their habit and to gift them a second chance at life. The restrictions, which were dreamt up in Brussels and written into law over here earlier this year are wide ranging, but the most punitive see limits imposed on both the size of e-liquid containers and the amount of nicotine they can contain. The upshot of these arbitrary restrictions is that they make e-cigarettes a less appealing option to would be smokers desperate to kick their habit.
One suggestion talked about in Westminster is the passing of an amendment to the anticipated Great Repeal Bill, under which the EU-made laws within the bill would stop being in force after five years. Such a ‘sunset clause’ would deliver the twin benefit of liberating the arbitrary constraints imposed on the UK’s embryonic e-cigarette industry, while also throwing off the shackles of other Brussels born bureaucracy. Tempting.