Anything that mitigates the egregious risks of cigarettes must, surely, be welcomed.
After all, nearly six million people die every year as a consequence of smoking, according to the World Health Organisation, and even that astronomical number does not take into account the deleterious effect on those breathing the noxious fumes of others’ habits.
E-cigarettes seem the perfect solution: delivering nicotine addicts a craving-busting kick of vapour, while saving their lungs – and their surroundings – from the smoke, tar and carcinogens of tobacco. Unsurprisingly, many health campaigners smile on e-cigarettes.
Now, however, updated EU regulations governing tobacco products could ban the sale of anything with a nicotine concentration of more than 4mg per ml unless it is officially authorised as “medicinal”. Stop-smoking aids such as patches fall within existing rules so would be unaffected. E-cigarettes, though, would be caught out. If the measures are agreed, they will need to pass through the long and prohibitively expensive process by which new drugs are certified, putting a question mark over their commercial future. Anti-smoking groups are increasingly concerned – and rightly so.
Considered in isolation, there is a case for restricting the availability of nicotine. It is, indeed, a highly addictive substance – albeit one that causes little immediate harm without the leaves that contain it. But e-cigarettes do not exist in isolation. They exist as a substitute for the real – highly toxic – thing.
That is not to say there should be no regulations at all. Sales of e-cigarettes should be restricted and their advertising carefully controlled. There is also a need for more research into the effects of nicotine without the tobacco and the effects of its vapour on human lungs.
But to write new rules curtailing the spread of e-cigarettes is to give an undeserved fillip to the cancer-causing alternative and the big companies that make and market them. The judgement to be made by EU policymakers must focus on the balance of harm. And on that basis, there is no contest. E-cigarettes are to be encouraged, not regulated out of existence.