Ministers will not ban e-cigarettes indoors in England, despite the World Health Organisation urging governments to do so to combat the threat posed by the growing popularity of vaping.
The Department of Health (DH) made clear that it does not plan to outlaw the use of the increasingly popular gadgets in enclosed public spaces in England, although Wales’s Labour government is considering doing so.
The DH ruled out making e-cigarettes subject to the same “smoke-free” controls that have applied to normal cigarettes since 2007. Smoking is currently banned in pubs, restaurants and workplaces across the UK.
The department did so despite the United Nations’ health agency recommending such prohibition as part of tougher regulation of products it said were dangerous to children.
Lobbyists and official watchdogs are divided on how to respond. The British Medical Association, which represents most of Britain’s doctors, said it backed a ban.
But the anti-smoking group Action on Smoking and Health has opposed such a move. E-cigarettes could help smokers quit, it said.
The WHO said that e-cigarettes should be subject to much tighter restrictions on their use, sale, content and promotion, in a major statement that again highlighted key differences of opinion among medical groups as to whether they will ultimately increase or reduce the number of people addicted to nicotine.
The global health watchdog accepted that e-cigarettes are less harmful than conventional ones. But it argued that the risk they pose to people passively inhaling their vapours means they should not be allowed to be used indoors.
The organisation’s long-awaited report on the public health issue also noted with concern that much of the fast-growing electronic cigarettes industry is in the hands of established global manufacturers of conventional cigarettes.
The DH said it was already tightening regulation, just as the WHO wanted. For example, it is outlawing the sale of e-cigarettes to under-18s by 2016 and introducing the European tobacco products directive in the same year. It will set a legal limit on the amount of nicotine such products can contain, except for those which are classified as medicines that might help smokers who want to quit the habit. These are already regulated by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
The new European rules will cover lower strength products, ban most advertising, as well as setting standards for their ingredients, labelling and packaging, a DH spokeswoman said.
Regulation of e-cigarettes, still in its infancy in the UK, is done mostly on the basis that they are consumer products. “More and more people are using e-cigarettes and we want to make sure they are properly regulated so we can be sure of their safety and quality,” she added.
The WHO also recommended that vending machines stocking e-cigarettes be removed from “almost all locations” and that such products should be controlled in order to “minimise content and emissions of toxicants”. It also wants a ban on e-cigarettes which contain fruit, sweet or alcoholic drinks flavours, in order to reduce consumption.
The WHO wants governments to prevent e-cigarette manufacturers from making claims about their products’ capacity to improve people’s health by helping them quit unless and until they provided “convincing supporting scientific evidence and obtain regulatory approval.”
There is still only limited evidence that e-cigarettes do help people quit, which “does not allow conclusions to be reached” on that point, it added.
The BMA and other groups fear that e-cigarettes may prove a gateway to people – especially under-18s – trying, and starting to use, normal cigarettes.
Dr Ram Moorthy, deputy chair of the BMA’s board of science, said: “Tighter controls are needed to ensure their use does not undermine current tobacco control measures and reinforces the normalcy of smoking behaviour.”
That same concern has prompted ministers in Wales to have a public consultation on how to tackle e-cigarettes, including the possible first ban in the UK on their use indoors.
In its report on what it called electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), the WHO said: “The fact that ENDS exhaled aerosol contains on average lower levels of toxicants than the emissions from combusted tobacco does not mean that these levels are acceptable to involuntarily exposed bystanders.
“In fact, exhaled aerosol is likely to increase above background levels the risk of disease to bystanders, especially in the case of some ENDS that produce toxicant levels in the range of that produced by some cigarettes.”