The EU’s boneheaded war on e-cigarettes

The fervour of anti-tobacco moralisers continues to rise. And why wouldn’t it? Almost every illiberal measure they have proposed has been adopted uncritically, from smoking bans in pubs to sin taxes (which have almost doubled the cost of cigarettes over the last 10 years) to the rolling out of so-called ‘plain packs’ – which feature grotesque body-horror images. No measure seems too patronising or excessive.

But then e-cigarettes were invented. People started giving up smoking all by themselves, without the help of insulting regulations: 1.5million people across the UK have quit smoking thanks to e-cigs, plus another 1.4million have used them to cut down.

In response to this good news, the anti-tobacco crowd decided that something had to be done. Getting gormless citizens to be healthier was supposed to be the job of public-health naggers. Nudging us numpties along in the right direction had been a life’s work for some. How dare e-cigarettes come along and interfere with the meticulously planned long march to a nicotine-free world?

Cue the EU – that heavyweight of detached bureaucracy and bonkers rule-making. Its solution to the success of e-cigarettes is to reclassify vaping as a kind smoking. As we all know that smoking is bad – why not apply the same logic to e-cigarettes?

So, as of this week, the EU’s new Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) comes into force, bringing e-cigarettes under the same stringent regulations as tobacco products. The raft of new rules range from the counterintuitive to the absurd. They include: reducing the size of bottles that vaping fluid can be sold in; banning the higher nicotine liquids that heavy smokers tend to turn to; slapping health warnings on a product not thought to cause any health problems; and banning advertising for a product designed to help people stop smoking.

These regulations can only be understood in the context of that new favourite weapon of public-health types: denormalisation. It doesn’t matter that many of the regulations seem to have no discernible purpose. Denormalisation policies seek to gradually make certain personal habits less attractive, and less convenient, in the hope that they might eventually disappear.

These regulations will have a knock-on effect on people trying to quit smoking. There is some evidence that campaigns and policies that exaggerate the risks of e-cigarettes, and elide vaping with smoking, are already putting people off using them. In the last couple of years, the rate of people ditching cigarettes to take up vaping has plummeted. Now just 20 per cent of smokers in the UK believe that e-cigarettes are a lot less harmful than conventional smoking.

But it’s not all bad news. After all, we’ll be out from under the buttocks of meddling Eurocrats in less than two years – it is possible for us to repeal this nonsense. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that common sense will prevail. Successive UK governments have been at the vanguard of introducing over-zealous public-health policies, often bringing in stifling legislation that goes beyond what is required by Brussels. There is little to suggest that any post-Brexit government would go out of its way to tear up directives like the TPD without first being pressured to do so.

Brexit gives us the opportunity to scrap things like the TPD, but only if we can make a broader case for getting the scolding puritans of the public-health industry out of our lives. We must make the case for individual freedom, for our right to live our lives as we please – free of state intrusion.

Russell McCarthy is a writer based in London.

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