Mark Pawsey is the MP for Rugby and the Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for e-cigarettes.
For the first time, Public Health England has been actively encouraged smokers to consider vaping (aka e-cigarettes) as part of their attempt to quit smoking.
I should begin by saying that I am not a smoker, or a smoker-turned-vaper. But I took a personal interest because of the stories my constituents were telling me of their success in breaking their smoking habit through vaping.
Not knowing much about this new technology, but being aware that there were new European rules coming into effect that governed their use, I and my parliamentary colleagues set up a cross-party group (the APPG for E-Cigarettes) to examine this increasingly headline-grabbing debate.
My interest was piqued when I was taken to a successful independent vaping shop in my constituency of Rugby by a member of my parliamentary staff, himself an ex-smoker who had quit thanks to vaping. When I observed the enthusiasm with which the shop’s employees talked about their products, and learned of sheer number of people in my constituency who had been able to kick their tobacco habits for good through vaping, I knew it was a subject worth further investigation.
We formed the APPG, in part, because of the conflicting health stories. Were these products actually safe? On the one hand I noted worrying headlines on an almost weekly basis claiming that vaping products were responsible for a whole number of health problems. On the other, statements from leading health professionals that they were likely to be at least 95 per cent less harmful than smoking. The messages on vaping were certainly mixed.
There is no doubt that vaping has been picking up serious momentum over the past year. Its safety and efficacy as a smoking cessation tool has been endorsed by Public Health England, Cancer Research UK, and the Royal College of Physicians to name but a few. Indeed, the Government made a commitment to encourage the use of vaping products in their Tobacco Control Plan launched in July.
Off the back of their plan, the annual Stoptober campaign took a bold step in actually advising smokers to consider vaping as an option.
It appears to be working. I have heard from the UK Vaping Industry Association that this endorsement has already had a significant impact, with their members reporting increases in the sale of starter kits of between 37-65 per cent. Clearly, Public Health England’s message is cutting through.
However, outside of Stoptober, this has not necessarily been the case. Whilst health bodies have been queuing up to endorse vaping products as a viable smoking cessation tool, according to Action on Smoking and Health, more people in the UK today now believe that vaping is as harmful or more harmful than smoking than they did only a few years ago.
It is clear that whatever the positive public health message is and whoever it is coming from, there is a serious case of mixed messages when it comes to vaping. Therefore I am pleased to see that the Science and Technology Committee will be conducting their own inquiry into the current evidence; the more evidence the better.
Whilst these mixed messages have a lot to do with the alarmist headlines that we see on vaping products, they are also a result of the way in which the products are regulated. Whilst public health bodies are free to make health claims about e-cigarettes, advertising restrictions mean that vaping companies themselves are not.
This seems counter-intuitive perhaps, given nicotine gum or patches are free to highlight how they can help people quit (even when the evidence suggests they are less effective than e-cigarettes). The EU Tobacco Products Directive also imposes other rather arbitrary measures.
E-liquids (as they are called) must only be sold in tiny bottles if they contain nicotine (which puts smokers off), and all vaping-related merchandise must have warning signs on the packaging of nicotine’s addictive properties, regardless of whether the product contains nicotine or not. These may only sound minor, but perhaps feed the perception among smokers that it’s not worth making the switch.
That is not to say that we must do away with regulation. Clearly, there are significant gaps in our knowledge when it comes to e-cigarettes and nobody wants to take risks when it comes to people’s health. But what we do know is that smoking harms all of its users and any opportunity must be taken to encourage smokers to kick the habit.
Above all, what we need to create when it comes to vaping products is clarity. That is why the APPG has just published its first ‘State of the Vaping Nation’ report, which analyses the current policy context and examines the confusing messages the public are receiving.
If vaping products are a relatively safe and effective tool to enable people to quit smoking, and all of the evidence so far suggests they are, the Government needs to throw its weight behind them.
On this front the signs are increasingly encouraging. Stoptober, whilst welcome, is a good start but to help as many people as possible quit smoking for good these most recent efforts must not be in isolation.