“UK government's war on e-cigs is over,” stated The Register back in July. It was clear to see why because the growing body of evidence on the government’s own website was telling us all that vaping worked as a quit tool and was orders of magnitude safer than smoking cigarettes. Then, with the release of Towards a smoke-free generation: tobacco control plan for England, the government actually started promoting vaping as a key part of reducing smoking in teens.
The Telegraph’s headline displayed an agenda that has either been hidden well or previously not there: “MPs launch inquiry into e-cigarettes over fears they could 're-normalise' smoking for teens”.
All of a sudden we are reading that “The Science and Technology Committee has called for evidence about the health benefits or harms of e-cigarettes, and whether they are providing a gateway to cigarettes for young people.”
The official announcement was couched in positive terms and the need to investigate vaping’s effectiveness as a stop-smoking tool – but it’s the sudden eagerness to analyse the impact on health and concern over “NHS costs and the UK's public finances” that ought to set alarm bells ringing.
Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat MP and chair of the committee, said: “2.9 million adults now in this country using them, and its very clear that there is a very significant health gain by people giving up smoking and using e-cigarettes. But we need to understand if there are any health consequences that relate to e-cigarettes, and also what the economic impact is.”
The trouble is that we have been here before, many times, and all of this information has already been presented. Professor John Britton is the director for the UK Centre of Tobacco and Alcohol Studies at the University of Nottingham. He has been part of most, if not all, of the presentations at various political engagements.
Following up this announcement, Britton commented on the nature of evidence of health issues: “Vaping involves inhaling a hot vapour of nicotine and a number of other chemicals; whilst the nicotine vapour inhalation is pretty free from harm, the other chemicals in the vapour will not be. It would be wrong to say that vaping is safe, but then no activity is ‘safe’.”
“What has always been clear is that whatever the long-term hazards of vaping, they will pale into insignificance relative to the long-term hazards of smoking tobacco. So, a lot of this argument has come down to whether electronic cigarettes are safe or not – well the simple answer is: they are not safe, but they’re an awful lot safer than smoking.”
But the MPs now appear to be concerned that there might be something we are not concerned about currently that, in years to come, we will wonder why it was not foreseen.
Britton replies to that point: “It is inevitable that there will be problems from electronic cigarettes in the long term, but the frequency and risk of those problems is much lower than for tobacco. So those who argue ‘we don’t know the long-term health risks’ are making a perfectly valid point, but they have to take in mind the fact that half of smokers are killed by their smoking. A smoker loses a day of life expectancy for every four days smoked. It is inconceivable that electronic cigarettes represent anything like as great a hazard to individual health.”
As for political worry over the issue of non-smokers and children taking up vaping, Britton responds: “It is a worry if it’s happening…but the evidence is that it’s not happening. Young people do experiment with electronic cigarettes, as they do with tobacco cigarettes and lots of other things, some of which we would wish or hope they didn’t experiment with, but the evidence long-term is very clear, in the UK and around the world, that the experimentation almost invariably does not lead to sustained tobacco smoking.”
“The problem, of course, is that there are a lot of children out there who are still at very high risk of becoming smokers – and those youngsters are most likely to have access to electronic cigarettes and tobacco. So, you do see an association between electronic cigarette use and tobacco use in young people, but progression from electronic to tobacco in sustained and regular use is extremely rare.”
“And a further point is that smoking prevalence rates in children and adults, in the UK, are falling quickly – and that is true in all of the countries around the world where electronic cigarettes are in widespread use.”
As to their final fear that second-hand vaping, or passive vaping, is an issue, Britton states: “The risk to others if people are vaping, particularly if they are vaping from a device that doesn’t generate huge clouds of visible vapour, is negligible. I think vaping in public places, especially public enclosed places, is a courtesy issue. It falls in the same area, to me, as using an asthma inhaler in an indoor place. All of these things produce something which goes into the atmosphere, but the effect of electronic cigarette vapour on other people is negligible.”
So, all the fears committee members suddenly claim to hold have been addressed and can be easily countered. Which just leaves this mystery comment regarding the economics. Or, as Lamb told The Telegraph: “the implications of this growing industry on NHS costs and the UK's public finances." Some might wonder whether this is nothing more than an exercise to produce a justification to launch a tax raid?