Ever since the Brexit referendum result, ministers have promised us a long overdue ‘bonfire’ of EU regulation. One area where this is desperately needed is the approach to tobacco harm reduction. The Government has committed to the goal of Smokefree 2030, meaning smoking prevalence of 5% or lower nationally. To stand a chance at achieving that the UK must get rid of nonsensical EU regulations that are damaging public health – and quickly.
The European Union Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) has already held the UK back for too long – banning far safer alternatives to smoking, like the chewing tobacco snus. Sweden negotiated an opt out from the EU-wide ban on the sale of snus on joining the bloc in 1995. The result has been dramatic, with the product directly responsible for Sweden boasting the lowest smoking rate in Europe at just 6% (and falling), and with it the lowest rate of smoking-related diseases.
But the latest signs suggest that the EU are determined to take their anti-scientific approach to safer nicotine use one step further. The latest ill-conceived idea from the European Commission is to ban many flavoured e-cigarettes – safer alternatives to cigarettes that many smokers rely on to help them quit tobacco. Sadly, once again the Commission is citing the cherry-picked, anti-vaping pseudo-science that the World Health Organisation (WHO) routinely peddles, ignoring clear evidence of the significant benefits e-cigarettes can provide.
We now have the opportunity to diverge from EU rules and regulations related to vaping. To its credit, in the ‘Benefits of Brexit’ document, the Government has stated that it would look to ‘go further than the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive allowed us to’ in order to advance our leading role in tobacco harm reduction. With the increase in smokers switching to e-cigarettes slowing in recent years, the UK must not dither, but go full steam ahead with what Action on Smoking and Health calls ‘a vaping revolution’ if we are to achieve our Smokefree 2030 goal.
The EU’s threat to ban many flavoured e-cigarette alternatives sets a dangerous precedent, one where the bureaucratic desire to intervene obstructs a public health orientated, scientific approach to reducing harm from combustible tobacco. This is already having a detrimental effect in the UK, with arbitrary TPD restrictions on vape juice bottle sizes and tank capacity placing unnecessary obstructions in the way of smokers switching. The Government should use its Brexit freedoms to overturn these pointless rules as soon as possible, as well as consider other ways that we can promote access to safer alternatives.
Deliberate misinformation surrounding the safety of e-cigarettes, of which organisations such as the EU and WHO are significant perpetrators, are hindering the transition away from smoking for too many people. Public Health England concludes that vaping is at least 95% safer than smoking cigarettes, but the EU’s crusade against all forms of nicotine use has meant that the number of people who correctly believe vaping to be much less harmful than smoking is pitifully small. Concerningly, data just released by Action on Smoking and Heath found that 33% of the public wrongly believe vaping is as harmful or more so than smoking.
The UK has been a pioneer when it comes to tobacco harm reduction, something the country can be hugely proud of. There is no excuse for the mixed-messages and pseudo-science the EU has been peddling; it is a danger to public health, and we must stand against it.
The UK has a once-in-a-generation opportunity with Brexit to make progress on Smokefree 2030. But to do this, the UK must be firm in our commitment to promoting access to safer alternatives, rather than following the EU’s irresponsible approach and making the difficult decision to quit even harder.
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