The United Kingdom (UK) has one of the largest number of e-cig users around the world. A study by the Action on Smoking and Health released last May estimates that around 2.8 million adults in the UK use vaporizers or e-cigarettes. Among e-cig users who are also ex-smokers, majority (67%) say that they vape “to help them stop smoking tobacco entirely.”
In this sense, vapes function as tobacco harm reduction products, and yet, public perception about the harmfulness of e-cigs strays farther from the truth.
This is one of the issues that Dick Puddlecote tackles in his political blog. His website is a repository of data and strong opinion about tobacco products in the UK, the policies covering it, and the government action on related issues. His blog was voted one of the Top 25 Political Blogs in the UK in 2011 at totalpolitics.com.
Dick indulged the NICMAXX team in a bit of Q&A and here’s what we learned about vaping on the other side of the pond.
NICMAXX (N): Your blog covers policy development on tobacco and vaping regulation in the UK. Can you give us an overview of the policies covering vapes and tobacco harm reduction products in the UK?
Dick Puddlecote (DP): It’s pretty clear that the UK is one of the most progressive nations in the world when it comes to vaping, if not THE most. We now have Public Health England, the Royal College of Physicians and the network of Stop Smoking Services fully behind the harm reduction potential of e-cigs. This has been due to sustained intelligent and vociferous campaigning by vaping consumers over here. There are still public health naysayers, but they are generally bitter dinosaurs who are more focused on destroying businesses rather than interested in health, but they are thankfully being inexorably marginalised. The problem we have had is that we are hidebound by EU law and the enlightened outlook fostered over here is not shared with other EU member states. It’s also disappointing that the UK government has still not officially shifted from a position that e-cigs should only be used as a smoking cessation device and that long-term nicotine use is undesirable. There is still an unhealthy (pun unintended) attitude that pleasurable ways out of tobacco use are not acceptable, which defeats the attraction of vaping. If politicians could only get their heads around the fact that using pleasurable products instead of sterile medical ones is a good thing, then we could see some better outcomes all round and less friction.
On the subject of other tobacco harm reduction products, the future doesn’t look bright at all. The UK still doesn’t look likely to legalise snus anytime soon despite stunning success in Sweden, simply because we have a tobacco control industry which is more interested in destroying the tobacco industry than supporting realistic alternatives. Heat not burn technology looks interesting but is currently an unknown quantity. There have been reports of its success in other countries, but until it is launched in the UK, we won’t know what impact it will have. The UK government will be consulting on heat not burn and are already talking about possible tax regimes, so it is one to watch for now.
N: Can you describe the vaping culture in the UK today? What are the current trends and what’s coming?
DP: I’m not best qualified to judge that. All I can say is that vaping is far more prominent than it was when I first had a primitive device back in 2010. That also brings problems of its own though because whereby before no-one knew what they were, now many do, and bans based on ignorance (some encouraged and endorsed by public health and the EU) have followed. As far as trends go, sub ohm devices are more and more prevalent but – and I can imagine many will take issue with this – I believe they are the biggest threat to vaping and could be the death of the whole thing. I have two myself but use them at home or where there is absolutely no possible issue in public. How can we expect decent policies on vaping in pubs, workplaces, social spaces, etc. when there will always be someone who will scare a generally ill-educated public by blowing industrial levels of vapour around? Etiquette should be everything and especially important if we are to achieve a future where vaping is widely accepted. There are some pretty ignorant vapers out there; they need to stop being so for the greater good.
N: What do you think is the biggest myth about vaping? (or as you’ve learned from medical and health professionals)
DP: The biggest myth is “we just don’t know about the safety” because we damn well do. There is overwhelming evidence that vaping is as safe or safer than most legal consumer products and should be roundly encouraged, anyone who says otherwise is a charlatan (some, sadly, on our own side). The biggest asset the vaping community has is vapers themselves, and they need to be confident in making bold claims and ignoring those who wish to create doubt. Those ranged against vaping are small in number and may have some clout, but they will be drowned out by the sheer numbers of vapers which will eventually grab the attention of policy-makers in all jurisdictions as is increasingly happening in the UK. A consistent message which emphasises clear benefits of vaping will do this, being lily-livered and kowtowing to the “we just don’t know” agenda will not. Don’t play in public health’s manufactured playground, ignore them and create our own. Politicians don’t deal in nit-picking, they deal in macro politics, be confident, express yourselves and good policies will follow.
N: You mentioned the ‘pleasure economy’ in your blog A Day with the Doctors. You wrote, “Regulation of pleasure is currently not in keeping with what the public wants and is purely political in its make-up.” Can you explain this a bit further? How does regulation become political?
DP: This is very simple really. There seems to be a mindset in political circles – undoubtedly fomented by single issue public health activists – that anything that is not entirely healthy or is even vaguely addictive must be discouraged at all costs. Politicians have been encouraged by lobbyists – often with taxpayer money – to only see negatives and dismiss any benefits of drug use of any kind. So we see campaigns against smoking, drinking, fast food, fizzy drinks, sugar, etc. despite the fact that all those products are incredibly popular because the public derives pleasure out of them.
So we have a disconnect. People like pleasurable products but politicians want to clamp down on them. This is not in keeping with how the electorate wishes to live their lives but if a politician should speak in favour of the public they are instantly targeted by mostly state-funded lobbyists as somehow being in favour of illness, death, and destruction. As a result, public policy has ceased to be about what the public wants or is happy to tolerate, but instead a political exercise whereby politicians say what they think they should say to avoid scandal and keep their place in parliament. You can name on the fingers of one hand, for example, the number of UK politicians who believe that regulated legalisation of illicit drugs is a good thing despite all evidence saying that on balance it would be beneficial to the country.
The upshot is that we have a situation whereby pleasure is officially frowned upon by government, and consequentially a position taken on e-cigs that they are only good for complete smoking cessation, not for long-term use with pleasure and an enjoyment of nicotine in mind.
N: How should the government and health agencies view the emergence of e-cigs?
DP: How they view the emergence of e-cigs and how they should view the emergence of e-cigs are two separate things. There has been a ridiculous drive to demonise them and regulate them out of existence ever since they were introduced over here. Pretty disgusting people have had to be dragged kicking and screaming out of their ‘quit or die’ comfort zone into supporting vaping, but only after they have thrown the kitchen sink at prohibition – and even now they are opposing every attempt at lessening harsh burdens placed in front of e-cig manufacturers, vendors and products. Well, we say ‘supporting’ but it’s a very supine brand of support when they remain silent about vaping bans and often “fully welcome” them as state-funded anti-smoking organisation ASH Wales did earlier this year. There isn’t much point in supporting vaping if bans mean there is absolutely nowhere you can actually vape.
As I mentioned earlier, the UK government still insists on sticking to the idea that e-cigs should only be used as a smoking cessation device. The fingers-in-ears denial that the attraction of vaping is mostly because it is pleasurable is counterproductive and just further illustrates what the public already knows, that politicians are woefully out of touch with the public.
What should happen is that e-cigs should be fully encouraged by all departments of government and the public educated as to their efficacy. But, despite decades haranguing smokers to quit smoking, neither politicians nor the unaccountable NGOs they fund seem prepared to do this. You have to wonder about their true motives sometimes because it doesn’t seem to be anything to do with health.
N: You’re vocal about supporting the leave vote in the last Brexit referendum. How do you think will leaving the EU impact vaping regulation and the growing vaping culture in the UK?
DP: I think regulation of vaping will be prominent in the negotiations towards Brexit. The Tobacco Products Directive was a perfect example of EU overreach and how a supranational body such as the EU can get something disastrously wrong, without any mechanism for a nation state to object, and with no room to disobey the rules which were forced on it by unelected bureaucrats regulating from a position of ignorance. The UK House of Lords has been vocal in its condemnation of the TPD rules and the government has been squirming. I expect the new UK Minister for Brexit to use the TPD as an example of what is wrong with the EU just as the pre-referendum campaign did, it’s almost a poster child for why the EU is ill thought-out, slow-moving and unaccountable.
Stay tuned to Dick Puddlecote’s blog for the latest news and analysis on adult consumer products and health issues in the UK.