After a lot of official nervousness in the UK about vaping, it is striking that government bodies and public-health officials are now openly arguing that it is much safer than smoking. This is a very different attitude to many countries around the world, where vaping is still restricted and officially frowned on.
It is not a surprise, then, that the UK government is taking a relatively liberal approach to the implementation of the European Union’s Tobacco Products Directive (TPD). The TPD will put a limit on the nicotine strength of vaping liquid and the size of bottles, as well as placing severe restrictions on advertising and forcing manufacturers to register new products six months before they go on sale. These new regulations will be extremely damaging, hampering the development of products that encourage more smokers to switch to vaping. But thanks to huge effort by vapers to inform UK policymakers and regulators about the social and health benefits of vaping, the UK government will only be adhering to the bare minimum of TPD requirements.
This might not have been possible were it not for the fact that key figures in the public-health establishment were prepared to listen to consumers and defy the tobacco-control ‘party line’ of bans and regulations. These figures have taken a pragmatic view of tobacco-harm reduction in order to realise the potentially massive public-health gains on offer from vaping.
However, this has meant that public discussion about e-cigs has been dominated by arguments over the potential harms of vaping products, and their efficacy as an aid to quitting smoking. And this creates its own problems. It risks us losing sight of the very reason vaping works as a way of reducing smoking: it’s a consumer-driven solution to the problem of how you get the best bits of smoking without the health downsides.
Naturally, the public-health community, including many of those who are pro-vaping, think of vaping principally in terms of harm reduction. This leads to a disproportionate amount of time and energy spent arguing the toss over whether vaping devices work as smoking-cessation tools (millions of vapers worldwide are proof that they do); whether they will annihilate generations to come through nicotine addiction; and whether they are ‘gateway’ products to smoking tobacco. Of course, health is the most important consideration from a medical perspective, but it is not the only consideration for the ordinary smoker on the street.