A recent study from the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH) has suggested that banning the sale of flavoured vaping products can cause higher rates of cigarette smoking among teenagers. The findings come at an especially pertinent moment, given the intense discussion in Europe surrounding e-cigarettes and the possibility of banning flavours. The Netherlands, in particular, is planning to ban e-cigarette flavours, despite a strong public backlash – a decision which could cause far-reaching repercussions in the bloc and beyond.
An intense debate has swirled around e-cigarettes since the devices came onto the market. There has been a fair amount of fearmongering that vaping could act as a gateway to the far more dangerous pastime of smoking cigarettes. However, some studies have directly pushed back against this theory, while others have demonstrated that vaping can be an effective means of kicking a smoking habit and could therefore be an important tool for reducing smokers’ risk of health problems.
Dutch decision runs counter to the science
The question of flavoured vapes is currently nowhere more hotly contested than in the Netherlands. Since June of last year, the government has pushed for a ban on all non-tobacco flavoured vapes in the country, despite the fact that research shows that smokers who transition to flavoured e-liquids are significantly more likely to kick their cigarette habit for good than those using tobacco-flavoured alternatives. Given that a sweeping review by Public Health England has suggested that vaping is roughly 95% less harmful than smoking, an outright ban on the flavours which make smokers more likely to quit using combustible tobacco would appear to run counter to both the science and the country’s STOPtober campaign aimed at reducing the number of smokers among the population.
If Dutch politicians are not aware of the apparent contradiction in terms, the public certainly are. A consultation period held on the proposed prohibition garnered the largest ever response in the country’s history, with over 1,100 pieces of feedback. 98% of those were against the ban, while 74% explicitly mentioned how beneficial flavoured vapes have been in quitting smoking. Despite that vocal opposition, the Dutch government has stuck to its guns and is pushing through the ban all the same.
The value of incremental gains
It’s a move that could drive as many as 260,000 Dutch vapers back to smoking, according to one recent report—and it could have even greater ramifications for the rest of the world, too. Experts estimate “one billion deaths from smoking and other forms of tobacco use” by 2100 and are calling for a tobacco-free society by 2040. The grim projection is a stark reminder of the fatal effects of combustible tobacco use and what happens if realistic policies designed to achieve idealistic objectives – having smokers switch to using vapes – are abandoned for zero-sum approaches.
The Netherlands epitomise this thinking, although they have long been viewed as a progressive nation with liberal principles. Hence, its decision to clamp down on flavoured vapes could cause a domino effect of similar legislation in the EU and elsewhere. That might please the public health bodies and policymakers advocating for a completely nicotine-free society, but it simply ignores reality at the cost of uncounted lives.
While the Netherlands’ aggression against e-cigarettes is particularly concerning, the EU as a whole has also made missteps. Communications from the Commission have repeatedly failed to distinguish between the divergent risk profiles of e-cigarettes and combustible tobacco products. This equivocation seems to have already had an effect on European consumers’ perception of these products. Worryingly, surveys have indicated that nearly 60 percent of Europeans incorrectly believe that vaping is as dangerous as smoking.
Most European smokers, meanwhile, have not even tried an e-cigarette, something which could in part explain the EU’s stubbornly high smoking rates. On the occasion of this past May’s World No Tobacco Day, EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides admitted that while EU tobacco legislation, including the sweeping Tobacco Products Directive, has “clearly had a positive impact on smoking rates in the EU”—the bloc has seen a modest decline in smoking prevalence of roughly 6% since 2006—Brussels must set its sights higher in order to meet its ambitious objective of driving smoking rates beneath 5% of citizens by 2040.
Indeed, achieving this target would require a precipitous drop in smoking prevalence across the bloc given that roughly 25% of EU citizens currently use tobacco. The EU’s dream of a smoke-free generation seems even further out of reach when member states like the Netherlands are attempting to ban flavoured e-liquids, stripping vaping of one of its most attractive attributes and running the risk of neutralising it as an effective weapon in the war against cigarettes.
Idealistic goals through pragmatic progress
Of course, not everywhere is taking such an all-or-nothing attitude towards the practice of smoking. In the UK, for example, a Public Health England (PHE) report recognised how a transition to e-cigarettes could reduce the number of premature deaths caused by smoking and have an overall beneficial impact on public health. The paper also said that there is no evidence that e-cigarettes are undermining a long-term decline in smoking rates in the country and that in fact, they could even be contributing to it. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that vaping shops have even been allowed to open up attached to British hospitals to support smoke cessation programmes.
What it comes down to is the inability of the anti-vaping faction to see the wood for the trees, or rather the smoke for the cigarettes producing them. The scientifically proven adverse effects of combustible tobacco use are indisputable, so accepting vapes as a reduced-risk option is pivotal for a tobacco-free society to be achieved – a fact which European policymakers have been all too slow to recognise.