Of all the public health topics concerning the world in recent years, e-cigarettes have topped the list as one of the most polarizing and controversial.
All across the world, countries are starting to pass laws and regulations concerning vaping. It’s been a long time coming, so no one was particularly surprised at the recent surge in new e-cigarette legislation. But what is surprising is how very different e-cigarette regulations are between different countries and localities.
For some reason or another, vaping has become one of those extremely polarizing issues that everyone seems to have a strong opinion about. While there is general international consensus about the dangers smoking tobacco, no such international consensus exists for e-cigarettes.
There is a huge amount of diversity in the ways that different countries and states have chosen to regulate vaping. Some countries, like Australia and Singapore, have taken anti-vaping sentiment to the extreme and implemented a blanket ban on buying or selling e-cigarettes in the country.
On the flip side, the UK has led the world in exploring vaping as a tool for tobacco harm reduction, even encouraging doctors to recommend ecigarettes to smokers trying to quit.
America’s approach to vaping regulations, on the other hand, places it somewhere in-between. But there’s no denying that the US government certainly falls closer to the more restrictive side of the ecigarette policy spectrum. America’s staunchly negative stance on ecigarettes has prompted harsh criticism from health professionals across the world that think the US is heading in an unwise and problematic direction.
Absolute Safety Versus Harm Reduction
Politicians and health officials in the US continue to insist that vaping should be treated as a major “public health threat” and push for restrictive policies, while the UK’s government has not only accepted, but encouraged vaping as a harm reduction tool.
But why is it that? Why is the US attempting to tax and regulate e-cigarettes out of business while the UK is welcoming them as a good thing?
One thing that’s clear is, overall, UK health officials are much more open to “harm reduction” policies. Harm reduction is a a public health strategy aimed at “reducing the negative consequences” of risky behaviors, such as tobacco or drug use.
Harm reduction strategies contrast starkly with “prohibition” strategies, which attempt to prohibit or otherwise eliminate the risky behavior. The prohibition approach is deeply rooted in the history and culture of US public health efforts, and it’s what underlies the overly precautionary approach that the US has taken toward vaping.
Whereas America’s e-cigarette regulations emphasize proving that ecigarettes are safe, the UK’s harm reduction approach is primarily concerned with whether ecigarettes are safer than than tobacco. Nowhere is this attitude more clear than in the UK ecigarette consensus statement, a document endorsed by Public Health England and many other public health organizations in the UK.
Outcomes of Different Approaches
While the UK has been a world leader in the ecigarette research field and a source of many high-quality experiments and reviews, the US has gained a reputation across the world for enacting reactionary and unscientific e-cigarette policies.
With such contrasting regulatory approaches, there’s bound to be different results. So what kind of impact have the different strategies had in their respective countries?
First off, in the UK, a huge number of smokers have switched to vaping: they’ve seen 55% increase in ecigarette use in the past three years. Local public health officials praise this as a positive development, and they seem to be right.
As a result of the UK’s acceptance of ecigarettes as a harm reduction tool, the number of dual users who smoke and use ecigarettes decreased by 45% in just three years. In the past two years, it’s estimated than 470 people switched completely over to cigarettes every day. And, perhaps most telling, the number of ex-smokers in the UK increased by ten percent in just one year.
This change, which UK health officials expect to significantly reduce tobacco-related disease and death, has been facilitated by “an environment which enables consumers to be informed about the products, have access to them and allows manufacturers to innovate and provide quality vaping products.”
Unfortunately, the ecigarette regulatory environment in the US could hardly be more different. Public health officials in the US continue to claim that vaping makes it more difficult to quit smoking, and numerous strict e-cigarette taxes and regulations have ensured that vapor product manufacturers cannot operate or innovate without great difficulty.
The ecigarette regulations enacted last year by the FDA, for example, subject vapor product manufacturers to a strict level of screening that is unheard of anywhere else in the world. As a result of the burdensome requirements, only a fraction of the current vapor market is expected to be able to survive and afford the expense required to jump through the FDA’s hoops.
Even worse, more and more Americans every year are misled to believe that vaping is more risky than smoking. It’s not surprising, considering the many anti-vaping media campaigns that US public health officials have put out in order to discourage smokers from switching to vaping.
Will the US Ever Learn from the UK’s Success?
Many both within and outside the US think that this extremely restrictive approach to ecigarettes is out of line and bound to cause more harm than good. This has led to calls for the US to follow the UK’s example, like the Washington Post did in their article “What the US can learn from the UK about vaping.”
The US has indeed “set its face against tobacco harm reduction in favor of an ecidence-free, abstinence-only approach to vaping,” as Pete Kasperowicz from the Washington Post said.
“If US Anti-smoking activists are serious about saving lives, they should drop their dedication to the rigid dogma of nicotine abstinence and take a page out of the UK’s book.”
The role of vaping in American society is still being determined. With the Tom Cole Amendment still on the table, to challenge the FDA’s deeming regulations, there’s still a chance for the US to turn around it’s misguided approach to vaping policy.
The debate is still on. The voices of vapers and supporters must be heard to secure a healthy, happy culture in America where everyone is free to vape on.