Why Britain’s apology for e-cigarettes misses the point
Britain and America have been largely in step on regulating tobacco products since the mid-1960s, when they published their first tobacco control laws just months apart from one another. Now, however, a trans-Atlantic split has emerged. After six people died from vaping-related lung diseases in the US, Donald Trump has promised a ban on flavoured e-cigarettes. The UK’s public health chiefs, however, continue to downplay the risks. Britain’s top health regulator, Martin Dockrell, has said such a ban would be counter-productive since European vaping products are far safer than their US counterparts; British public health bodies have hammered home the message that “it is always preferable to vape than to smoke.”
Many Europeans, however, will be alarmed at the welcome mat London has laid out for vapes. A variety of recent studies have shown that e-cigarettes, even manufactured in Europe, carry an abundance of health risks. What’s more, the tobacco industry— which has spent years trying to prevent authorities in the European Union from efficiently regulating traditional cigarettes—is now pulling all its old tricks to stymy regulation of electronic products.
Dockrell isn’t entirely wrong about the ongoing health crisis being more likely to affect the US than Europe. Many of the 450 cases of lung illness being investigated are apparently attributable to illicit vaping fluids laced with suspect products, including THC, the key psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.
It’s true that THC is rarely found in European vaping products, and that the European market is much more closely regulated than its American counterpart. Under the terms of the Tobacco Products Directive, the EU’s flagship package of tobacco legislation, for example, e-cigarettes must carry a health warning similar to traditional smokes, while nicotine levels in each pod are lower than in the United States. The TPD’s tighter regulations mean that the sort of illicit bootleggers who have been blamed for the US epidemic are significantly scarcer in the European bloc.
The picture around e-cigarettes, however, is getting ever cloudier. Vaping manufacturers are no doubt thrilled with Dockrell’s pinning the blame for the spate of illnesses on unlicensed vendors. A growing body of evidence, however, shows that all electronic cigarettes carry serious health consequences, bootlegged or not.
Earlier this month, a study using lab mice found that the solvents used to create e-cigarette vapours disrupt the lungs’ protective layers. A separate study, published a week earlier, found that these same vapours inhibit the normal function of blood vessels and increase the risk of heart disease—even in products contains no nicotine. This echoes research published in June, which found that vaping increased the chance of cardiac arrest and that “e‐cigarettes should not be promoted or prescribed as a less risky alternative to combustible cigarettes.”
As the evidence mounts, so the vaping manufacturers face mounting criticism for portraying their product as a quitting aid. Earlier this month, US regulators issued a warning letter to Juul Labs, whose eponymous e-cig dominates the American market and is increasingly making inroads in Europe, telling the company to stop marketing its cartridges as a reduced-risk alternative to cigarettes. Juul has already snared millions of teenagers who are drawn to its edgy design and appealing flavours, but now faces hundreds of lawsuits from young people who say they got hooked on the product and now struggle to quit.
Big Tobacco 2.0
It’s unsurprisingly reminiscent of the myriad lawsuits which have blighted the traditional cigarette industry as the sector has desperately tried to cling onto market share. After all, the main vaping manufacturers are mostly owned by the same conglomerates which produce traditional cigarettes. These ties were further cemented just this week, when Juul’s CEO and cofounder stepped down and was replaced by a tobacco industry veteran, formerly of tobacco titan Philip Morris.
Philip Morris and the other members of the ‘Big Tobacco’ quartet – Imperial Tobacco, British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco International – have already spent billions of euros trying to manipulate the TPD in their attempt to wrest control of the conventional tobacco market. First they succeeded in watering down a series of key draft proposals, such as the introduction of plain packaging. Then they turned their attention to the new track-and-trace system which is intended to prevent cigarettes being smuggled across Europe’s porous borders.
Despite research showing that much of the illicit trade in tobacco products is orchestrated by the manufacturers themselves, industry representatives have maintained a tireless campaign of misinformation to persuade Brussels to adopt their own pack marker system, Codentify, as the bedrock of track-and-trace. The EU has already handed a key part of the project to a company which operates a version of Codentify and has worked regularly with the tobacco industry in the past. What’s more, many of the providers selected by EU member states to implement track and trace systems, such as Atos/Worldline, are long-time partners of the major tobacco companies.
These same manufacturers are turning their attention to the electronic market, which they see as key to retaining European consumers. Last October, Imperial sponsored a petition urging the European Commission to treat vaping products differently from traditional tobacco—reversing a key provision of the TPD. If the petition collects one million signatures, the Commission is duty bound to consider it, raising the worrying prospect Europe’s vaping regulations may eventually be watered down. The EU’s own ombudsman is concerned, describing the Commission’s approach to its dealings with cigarette companies as “inadequate, unreliable and unsatisfactory.”
While Britain’s reaction to the US vaping scare is justified – up to a point – by the difference in the US and EU regulatory regimes, it misses the wider picture. While Europe may currently have more effective regulations on vaping than America, the tobacco industry has spent decades subverting oversight and public health rules, thwarting everything from the TPD to the EU’s track-and-trace scheme. The sector which one judge dubbed “the king of concealment and disinformation” will surely stop at nothing to impede effective scrutiny of the electronic cigarette market; recent events simple prove how important this scrutiny is.