Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Africa: Tobacco Harm Reduction Under Siege As UK Politicians and EU Bureaucrats Contemplate Draconian Anti Vaping Policies

In less than a month, July 4, 2024 to be precise, the United Kingdom (UK) will be voting in a general election. The elections will inform the composition of the House of Commons which determines how the UK will be governed going forward.  

The two front-runners in the upcoming general election are Rishi Sunak, the incumbent Prime Minister from the Conservative Party, and Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party. Despite their political differences, the two major parties, through the UK Tobacco and Vapes Bill, are contemplating reviving draconian measures on safer nicotine products like e-cigarettes.

The UK and other countries including Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Sweden, and the United States have made significant progress regarding Tobacco Harm Reduction (THR) efforts, and the use of E-Cigarettes or Vaping. 2022 Vaping data shows that e-cigarette use in Great Britain was 3.8% daily and 2.6% occasionally in 2020; it has increased from the 3.7% that was recorded in 2014. On the other hand, Cigarette smoking rates in the UK have declined to 14.1 % which is a very significant reduction from the mid-70s prevalence.

Despite these gains, the envisaged revival of the UK Tobacco and Vapes Bill post-election period is likely to plunge the UK into the dark days, when smoking-related illnesses and deaths were the order of the day. Unfortunately, the effects of the ban could also spread beyond the UK. The Bill is also set to ban flavours in e-cigarettes and the government also intends to introduce a steep new vape tax in addition to the 20% VAT currently being levied.

At the just-ended Global Nicotine Forum (GNF) in Warsaw Poland, Dr. Colin Mendelsohn, the Founding Chairman of the Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association charity said the British politicians were ignorantly dealing with the Tobacco Harm Reduction matter.

“While well intended, highly restrictive regulations just don’t work. But British politicians are clearly not paying attention and have learned nothing from the mayhem unfolding in other parts of the world,” said Dr Mendelsohn.

He added that the ban will likely fuel illegal activities such as smuggling and turf wars as has been the case in Australia.

“History has shown that harsh restrictions on a popular product simply send it underground. People find other ways of getting it. In Australia, the regulations for e-cigarettes are so onerous that they are effectively banned. There is now a thriving and violent black market. Fire-bombings are commonplace. People are being murdered. The government has effectively handed control of the market to organised crime, and rival gangs are engaged in a turf war to control market share.”

In the UK, although the Tobacco and Vapes Bill didn’t survive the pre-election ‘wash-up’, both main parties said that they would revive it. The ‘wash-up’ is the term used to describe the process by which legislation that is close to completion is pushed through when an election is called. Legislation that is not close to completion, like the Tobacco and Vapes Bill is abandoned, but can be revived by the incoming government.

“Prohibitive, draconian measures on vape products in Australia have to date seen three murders and around 80 fire-bombings of tobacco shops selling illegal product. 90% of vape products are illicit and are completely unregulated.”

“Australia now has one of the highest youth vaping rates in the Western world” according to Mendelsohn.

“Australia’s experience shows that highly restrictive policies lead to substantial unintended, harmful consequences. Politicians are responsible for understanding the effect the policies they are pushing are likely to have in the real world. When policy fails, the costs – monetary or otherwise – can be significant.”

“The UK has been a world leader in tobacco harm reduction and sensible, evidence-based policies have dramatically reduced smoking rates and improved public health. These proposed policies threaten to undermine that progress and should be carefully reassessed before it is too late,” Dr Mendelsohn said.

Meanwhile, European bureaucrats are contemplating imposing a tax on quitting smoking. The move is likely to see millions of smokers who had quit go back to their old bad habits. The EU’s flagship Beating Cancer Plan was a major topic of conversation at the just-ended Global Forum on Nicotine conference in Poland, Warsaw.

“It’s hard to tell if the EU is serious about beating cancer.  If it is, it needs to get really serious about beating smoking” said tobacco policy expert Clive Bates.

“That means using all possible means to help people quit smoking, including vapes, nicotine pouches, heated tobacco, and snus. The EU institutions waste far too much energy trying to block people from using these products to quit,” he said.

The situation in the US is just as dire, with regulations so onerous that legal options can’t compete with the black market.

In Sweden, where smokers have switched to snus, smoking went down three times faster than in the rest of the EU.  In New Zealand and Japan, smoking rates dropped by a half and a third, respectively, after the introduction of heated tobacco products.

The European Commission’s goal is to reduce tobacco use to under 5% by 2040.  But progress is slow. Smoking rates have dropped by just six percentage points between 2006 and 2020. And in some countries, like Slovenia, smoking rates have gone up (see Figure 1 in attachment).

“Making it harder to give up smoking by pricing people out or making alternative products so unattractive that nobody wants to use them, is not the answer,’ said Dr Garett McGovern, Medical Director at the Priority Medical Clinic in Dublin, Ireland.

“EU bureaucrats should recognise that novel products represent an opportunity, not a threat, but unfortunately, they seem enthralled by advocacy groups that hate innovation and resist change,” Bates said.


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