I’ve just attended a briefing event on the EU’s new Tobacco Directive. Far from addressing the damage done by the previous Tobacco Directive, they’re making matters worse.
And the public has noticed. I’ve been getting rather a lot of e-mails about e-cigarettes, and every one is saying “don’t ban them!”. Many e-mails contain touching stories of smokers who’d struggled unsuccessfully to kick the habit, but finally succeeded with e-cigarettes.
Of course strictly speaking the EU is not proposing to “ban” e-cigarettes. But they’re going to treat them as pharmaceutical products. That means that they’ll only be available in pharmacies. It means that there will be very heavy approval costs for each brand and type of e-cigarette. That in effect will raise huge barriers to entry, and mean that only very large and prosperous companies will be able to enter the market. Companies like the existing tobacco firms.
It will also be a vast barrier to innovation. At the moment e-cigarettes are improving and developing rapidly. But if each small enhancement needs pharmaceutical-level approval, change will be slow to come. The proposed regulatory structure will mean limited distribution, few suppliers, and the same old products for years.
Why does it matter? At the moment, they say that 700,000 people a year in Europe die of smoking. Of course it’s their right to smoke, and I defend that right. But I also recognise that many smokers want to give up, but struggle to do so, and find e-cigarettes a huge help. Perhaps surprisingly, nicotine itself is not a particularly harmful drug. It’s the thousands of substances in cigarette smoke that clog the lungs and cause cancer and other respiratory diseases. And e-cigarettes deliver the nicotine without the smoke.
While there’s a huge amount of anecdotal evidence of the help that e-cigarettes offer smokers trying to quit, it’s early for extensive epidemiological evidence. So it’s perhaps helpful that another non-smoking tobacco product has been in use in a European “test market” for several decades. In Sweden and Norway they have a product called “snus”, which is like a small tea-bag of tobacco. This product is legal in Sweden, but (bizarrely, in the Single Market) not in the rest of the EU.
Snus is held in the mouth, usually between the teeth and gums, and provides a supply of nicotine. Frankly the whole idea sounds disgusting to me, but who am I to contest the choice of millions of Swedes and Norwegians?
While snus carries some risk, particularly of mouth cancers, it is dramatically safer than conventional cigarettes. There is overwhelming and detailed research into the effect of the snus habit. The incidence both of smoking and of lung cancer in Sweden is around half the average EU level. There is clear evidence that switching to snus from cigarettes helps smokers to quit, and dramatically reduces health risks. There are data to show that snus does not significantly increase the number of new tobacco users.
In fact the health benefits to the population, in terms of overall harm reduction, are overwhelming and proven. And there is a clear read-across to e-cigarettes, which are plainly set to have the same effect.
Sadly, however, the European parliament is driven not by concern for public health, but by an irrational hatred of the tobacco industry and of anything containing the word “cigarette”, regardless of the real health implications. They seem determined to vote through this nonsense, and to reject what could be the most dramatic health improvement that the EU could hope for.