Last week Public Health England announced that fewer people than ever are smoking in England (less than 17 per cent). They also highlighted the role of e-cigarettes in helping smokers to quit cigarettes.
Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) estimates that 2.8 million Brits vape — more than in any other country outside the US. In Britain we see this as something to celebrate. Last year a report from Public Health England found that e-cigarettes are 95 per cent safer than smoking. A second report by the Royal College of Physicians agreed.
However, other countries take a different view. In Australia, Brazil and Singapore, for example, e-cigarettes are banned, while more dangerous cigarettes and smoking tobacco are perfectly legal.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently recognised that switching smokers to less dangerous sources of nicotine would be a major public health victory. But at the same time it refuses to endorse vaping. While some estimate that vaping could save a billion lives in the coming years, the WHO continues to ignore the evidence.
In November, the WHO convenes in New Delhi, India, to discuss further tobacco control measures. Instead of embracing electronic nicotine devices, it is proposing to restrict, tax or even ban them.
Public health supporters around the world will be looking to the UK to defend safer alternatives to cigarettes. But the UK will have no vote in India. Despite Brexit, it will still be represented by the EU, which casts a bloc vote on behalf of all its members.
UK health officials are discussing this today in Brussels with their European colleagues. Will they push the EU to speak up for safer alternative sources of nicotine? I hope so. Will they succeed? It will require strength and grit.
So far, France is the only EU country to share the UK approach. These two, the only countries in the EU where cigarettes must now be in plain packaging, are rightly recognised as Europe’s leaders on tobacco control. They must hold their ground. A billion lives could depend on it.
Professor Gerry Stimson is director of Knowledge-Action-Change and holds an emeritus chair at Imperial College London.