Call for common sense in battle over ‘smoking’ substitute

Sales of e-cigarettes have rocketed, so how did they end up at the centre of bitter debate in the heart of the European Union? Sarah Freeman reports.

The other evening on the train, it was just like the old days. Well, almost. In a packed carriage of commuters, one weary looking businessman dragged hard on a cigarette.

The woman next to him barely noticed and after a couple of puffs he popped it back in his top pocket. Electronic cigarettes have not only turned the smoking ban on its head, but with 1.3 million Brits using them at the last count, they’re also fuelling a lucrative industry.

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However, while anecdotally thousands claim they have quit conventional cigarettes by using an electronic replacement, not everyone has jumped on the bandwagon and there have been moves to reclassify e-cigarettes as medicinal products.

The crucial vote was due to take place in the European Parliament next week and if passed would have meant no e-cigarette could be sold without having first been licensed – a process which is both lengthy and financially prohibitive. Even then, the sale of e-cigarettes would have been restricted to certain pharmacies. However, yesterday it was announced the debate has been pushed back to October and many supporters of the proposals, including Yorkshire and Humber MEP Linda McAvan fear that the delay may suck the momentum out of the vote which had also hoped to make smoking less attractive to young people through mandatory warnings and minimum pack sizes.

“All the proper procedures for the vote had been respected and the timetable had been in place since January so the move is disappointing,” said McAvan. “We must now make sure that the vote goes ahead and that there are no more delay tactics.

“Around 570 children between the ages of 11 and 15 start smoking every day in the UK and we cannot justify a delay in acting on this. In Yorkshire alone, 13,710 children are regular smokers and the devastating reality is that around half of regular smokers will die from a smoking related disease.”

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Since pinning her colours to the flag and supporting the proposals, McAvan’s parliamentary office has been bombarded with correspondence critical of her stance and the decision to the delay the vote has been welcomed by campaign groups which had warned the EU it was in danger of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

“With a minimum of marketing support, e-cigarettes have become the most popular smoking-cessation devices in the UK,” says Rory Sutherland, founder member of the Common Sense Alliance which has been lobbying politicians in the hope of persuading enough of them to vote against the proposals. “I can attest to this myself. While I have not eradicated my addiction to nicotine, I have progressively reduced the nicotine content of the e-cigarettes which I use.

“More important still, on the rare occasions I have joined someone in a ‘real’ cigarette – perhaps twice in the last year – I’ve found it unpleasant by comparison. I don’t claim any medical expertise, but I have spent 25 years studying behavioural change, enough to know that the best way to end a habit is to replace it with a new, similar habit. I also know that people choose from available alternatives. If a product is not on the shelf, people find something else to buy.

“Someone craving nicotine may easily lapse if they find their preferred e-cigarette is not on sale. It seems unfathomable that some politicians are seeking to limit the availability of this potentially life-saving technology by requiring it be sold with the same restrictions as medicines.”

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With the vote now scheduled for October 8, it means another month of argument as those on both sides try to rally their supporters. While all acknowledge e-cigarettes are less harmful than your average packet of 10, with a number of schools having banned their use among pupils, there are fears that they could lead onto full blown addiction.

It’s not an argument which holds much sway with Rory and the Common Sense Alliance.

“The addictive properties of cigarette smoking are not purely chemical; the addiction is as much a psychological attachment to the habit of smoking as it is pure chemical dependency. Electronic cigarettes substitute both the chemical and the habit.

“I acknowledge that to a puritan, the e-cigarette may be a less satisfactory solution than widespread self-denial. But I think we should be pragmatic. With a safer delivery device, nicotine is a relatively harmless pleasure – certainly nobody I know every started a fight or crashed a car under its influence.”