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The politics of e-cigarettes: all smoke and no fire?

As e-cigarettes might soon only be available via prescription - are users right to protest?

As the European Union is poised to reclassify e-cigarettes as “medicines”, it is time for a rational debate regarding their regulation.

The e-cigarette market is estimated to be worth £250 million in the UK by 2014. It has approximately 1.3 million users or “vapours” as they are known in the e-cigarette community. These battery powered devices turn liquid nicotine into a vapour that can readily be inhaled. They provide a nicotine hit without the chemicals, tar and smell inherent with tobacco smoke. 

Their increasing popularity has caught Brussels bureaucrats somewhat off guard. Amendments to the EU tobacco directive will mean e-cigarettes sales will be regulated and only available via prescription from the likes of Boots and Lloyds pharmacies.

Hundreds of vapours from across Europe who are against the proposals gathered outside the European parliament this week to protest. They burst 2,000 black balloons representing the number of lives they believe could be saved daily if policy makers back the use of e-cigarettes. Collectively the e-cig community has spoken out under the campaign “Smoke without fire”.

Those gathered at the protest ranged from ex-smokers now vapours to owners of SME’s (small to medium size enterprises) whose livelihoods depend on e-cigarettes. President of the Electronic Cigarette Industry Trade Association Katherine Devlin said “The UK e-cigarette market should be allowed to grow organically in a responsible way”.

Liberal Democrat MEP Rebecca Taylor met with demonstrators and said “I'm not convinced we should regulate e-cigarettes as medicine. The bottom line is I can't support anything that makes e-cigarettes less available than regular tobacco”.

The crux of the argument from those who object the changes is that e-cigarettes do not fall into the same category as quitting aids such as nicotine gum and patches. Instead while some use them as a stepping stone to quitting altogether, others chose to substitute e-cigarettes as a healthier alternative to the real thing. They are seen as the lesser of two evils.

Those favouring regulation site the varying quality of products and concern over nicotine strength. Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies said: “More and more people are using e-cigarettes, so it’s only right these products are properly regulated to be safe and work effectively”.

Commenting on their strength, Dave Dorn who runs the e-cig community site Vapour trails said, “controlling the dose of users is based on the assumption that medical professional know the amount needed, but one size doesn’t fit all”.

International bodies such as the World Health Organisation remain vigilant about speaking out in favour of e-cigarettes. In 2009 the US Food and Drug Administration found traces of a toxic chemical used in antifreeze in two brands of e-cigarette, raising concern over quality standards.

The safety of consumers and citizens should rightfully be top of the agenda for our representatives in Brussels. Yet nudge theory has shown us when looking at issues of lifestyle choice and behaviour psychology, legislating should be the last and not the only resort. A principle of the European Union is to create competitive markets and break monopolies, yet their proposals run counter to both. As articulated in an Independent Voices editorial in March the heavy hand of government is not necessarily the answer. A pragmatic way ahead would be a minimum age of purchase and to establish a safe level of nicotine for products. I’ve never met a long term smoker that hasn’t tried to quit, so now making it more difficult for people to access the very tools that can assist them is anything but helpful. We need to regulate the smoke to put out the fire.