If we get the decision on e-cigarettes wrong it could cost many lives

North East Ukip Euro MP Jonathan Arnott argues that if e-cigarettes are banned it could cost us very dear

Yui Mok/PA Wire A man smoking an electronic cigarette
A man smoking an electronic cigarette

I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life. I just don’t trust myself not to enjoy it too much, and to become addicted.

When I was a teenager, and my friends were trying cigarettes, I chose not to for that reason.

Normally I’d be the last person to write an article about smoking. But recently, I’ve noticed that many – if not most – of my friends who smoke have replaced their cigarettes with e-cigarettes.

Some have tried for years, and failed, to quit smoking altogether. So I’m happy to see them doing something which is much less unhealthy. And here in the North East, we have the highest rates of smoking in the country.

Now, after a couple in Staffordshire were barred from adopting because one of them had used an e-cigarette, we learn that North Tyneside and Durham councils have similar rules – flying in the face of advice from Public Health England and the Fostering Network, depriving children of loving families.

Over a million former smokers are now looking nervously towards our government, and especially to the European Union.

From proposals to make e-cigarettes into pharmaceutical products to the notion of adding punitive taxation like we do with traditional cigarettes, we need to think very carefully indeed before taking action.

If we discourage e-cigarettes through taxation, we will stop the move from traditional cigarettes to e-cigarettes.

Yet my experience in the European Parliament is that is exactly what MEPs across Europe are desperate to do. But then, the European Parliament itself is perfectly happy to have indoor smoking areas. It’s one rule for us MEPs, and another for the general public.

The medical science behind e-cigarettes is not yet fully settled. It seems to be generally agreed that e-cigarettes are not fully safe. It seems to be generally agreed that the health risks are much lower than those of regular cigarettes.

Professor Robert West and Doctor Jamie Brown of UCL have claimed in the British Journal of General Practice that for every million people who switch from traditional cigarettes to e-cigarettes, 6,000 lives will be saved every year.

When I pointed out on Twitter that I oppose EU plans to slap more taxes on e-cigarettes, I was directed to a study which finds that e-cigarette vapour damages the immune systems of mice. It speculated that the unexpected presence of free radicals might account for this.

But the same study also pointed out that, with cigarette smoke, the levels of free radicals are roughly 100 times as high.

Tobacco and tar aren’t generally present in e-cigarettes either; they contain fewer toxins and carcinogens overall.

In the absence of a definitive study, we have to accept that the risks associated with e-cigarettes are substantive but that they are much less bad than smoking traditional cigarettes.

Likewise, if there is a danger with passive inhalation of vapour from e-cigarettes then it is clearly of an order of magnitude much lower than that of second-hand cigarette smoke.

Nicotine is an addictive substance, there’s no doubt about it. The European Union claims to be concerned that e-cigarettes will become a gateway to traditional cigarettes, but this seems to be an overstated concern.

According to the Office of National Statistics, just 0.14% of those who use e-cigarettes have never smoked traditional cigarettes. If we forget about the millions who are now doing something much less unhealthy because of the 0.14% (and many of them might have tried traditional cigarettes anyway in that time if e-cigarettes weren’t available), it’s not bad science but bad policy making.

The nature of those health risks, in any case, will vary somewhat from one e-cigarette to another. I have no objection to the right regulation: to inform about the health risks, to avoid glamourising e-cigarettes to teenagers, to minimise those health risks, and to have reasonable common standards to provide consumer confidence.

My interest here is nothing to do with cigarettes or e-cigarettes. It’s not because, as a non-smoker, it’s much more comfortable to stand next to someone with an e-cigarette than someone with a traditional cigarette.

It’s to do with saving lives. And where legislation is proposed that would stop people moving from cigarettes to e-cigarettes, there is a serious danger that tens of thousands of lives would be lost as a result.

  • Jonathan Arnott is Ukip MEP for the North East

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