By John Boley
Source: Nikkei Asian Review
Some 82% of smokers across the region said that “through tax and regulatory policies, the government should encourage adult smokers to switch to less harmful alternatives to cigarettes and ensure they are not used by youth.”
Yet governments appear determined to do the opposite of what their citizens want.
This is a shame, given the welter of independent reports in recent months that indicate the legitimization and regulation of e-cigarettes could be nothing less than a life-saver.
Same risk as coffee
In July, Public Health England, a U.K. government department, said e-cigarettes are “significantly less harmful to health than tobacco and have the potential to help smokers quit smoking.”
The U.K.’s Royal Society for Public Health called for public confusion over nicotine to be addressed as a way of encouraging smokers to use safer forms of the substance, calling nicotine “no more harmful to health than caffeine.”
In August, Dr. Derek Yach, former cabinet director at the World Health Organization and the man largely responsible for drafting its Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which restricts cigarette packaging and marketing globally, called for e-cigarettes to be brought “into the mainstream” and for governments to “end the war on e-cigarettes and view them as the smoking cessation aid that they are.”
Policymakers should “adopt regulations that encourage smokers to shift to reduced-harm products such as e-cigarettes and tighten up on regulatory actions aimed at regular cigarettes,” said Yach.
Here in Asia, many authorities appear untroubled by facts or the weight of independent opinion from acknowledged experts in harm reduction, even though reducing death and disease associated with smoking is a stated public health aim everywhere.
The anti-smoking lobby has polarized between the quit-or-die hard-line approach of adherents of the WHO against the less punitive approach of a growing chorus of independent experts. In numerous countries, as Yach observed, there are vested interests that support cigarette production and impede rational consideration of expert testimony.
The main argument from governments seems to be that drafting regulations to ensure safety standards for products and ingredients, as is done with other consumer items, and implementing age-of-sale restrictions to keep e-cigs away from the young would be too difficult and time-consuming.
In the factasia.org survey, 70% of adult smokers said they would consider switching to e-cigarettes if they were legal and met quality and safety standards. Clearly there is demand for a less harmful alternative to smoking for those who cannot, or do not, want to stop using nicotine.
In July, Dr. Marewa Glover, a New Zealand-based leader of smoking cessation programs, blasted governments such as Singapore and “even our closest neighbor Australia” for “imposing draconian, nonevidence-based bans and restrictive laws and taxes to stop smokers switching to vaping, to stop further evolution of vaping products and to even outright ban the sale of the hardware and the e-liquids in addition to the often already banned nicotine.”
Outright bans are a simplistic, even counter-productive, response to a complex issue. If unrestricted youth access to e-cigarettes is a concern, sales can be restricted to adults. If harmful additives are a concern, governments can regulate the content of the e-cigarette liquids and they can also regulate the devices. Why give up a promising means of getting smokers to switch to something now seen to be “at least 95% safer than cigarettes,” as one medical expert recently put it?
If only Hon Lik had called his invention something else.
John Boley is co-founder of factasia.org, a Hong Kong-based consumer advocacy group promoting debate on the regulation of tobacco and other nicotine-related products in Asia.