Is Brexit a fork in the road for nontraditional cigarettes?

As with many issues closely linked to Brexit, the future of electronic cigarettes in the UK is blanketed in a haze of uncertainty. On the one hand, vaping (along with other smokeless devices) is being hailed as a crucial component in the battle to reduce smoking numbers. On the other, the much-maligned Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) – a ruling which is designed to enforce limits on the sale and merchandising of both tobacco and tobacco-related products within the European Union (EU) – is seen as a major obstacle in encouraging e-cigarettes as a viable alternative to smoking.

The reason for the directive’s lack of popularity among vapers is clear to see. Up until its implementation, the UK was seen as a vaping-tolerant nation.

However, the TPD – which was passed in 2016 but gave a year’s grace to vendors to fall into line with its restrictions – has made life harder for vapers, who view it is costly, clunky and inconsistent. E-liquid bottles have been reduced from as large as 60ml to just 10ml, while tanks for e-cigarettes – many of which are 4ml or larger – are now only allowed to be 2ml. Maximum e-liquid nicotine revels must now be limited to just 20mg/ml, while there are also tougher restrictions on packaging and design, as well as a six-month notification period for new products.

To compound matters, the TPD is not consistently implemented. Different EU countries can choose at what level to apply the directive.

Initially, a series of loopholes – combined with lax implementation of the directive – meant UK vapers were not hit as hard as they first feared. However, that is starting to change as the Medicines & Healthcare Regulatory Agency, which is responsible for interpreting TPD standards, has started to crack down.

When the UK does eventually leave the European Union, it should – in theory – pave the way for a brand new set of rules to be drawn up for nontraditional cigarette users. However, that may not necessarily be the case. With the clock ticking and precious little progress being made on Brexit negotiations, there are many more pressing issues waiting to be discussed than vaping. Furthermore, should the UK wish to stay in the single market, they may well have to comply with regulations such as the TPD anyway.

That would be a bitter pill to swallow for vapers, but all may not be lost.

A change of tack in the UK’s battle to reduce smoking numbers could well hold the key to fewer restrictions for e-cig and heat-not-burn users. The concept of harm reduction – which encourages smokers to switch to less harmful alternatives (namely, smokeless cigarettes) – has become a lynchpin in the UK’s strategy in cutting smoker numbers.

And it seems to be working.   The number of smokers in the UK has now reached its lowest point since records began in 1974, with 17.2 per cent of adults smoking in 2015 compared to 20.1 per cent in 2010, the Office for National Statistics say. The number of e-cigarette users in Britain has also risen exponentially during that time, with some 2.9m adults now describing themselves as vapers.  And with e-cigarettes being viewed as some 95 per cent less harmful than normal cigarettes, it is little wonder to see them form a crucial element of the government’s attempts to reduce smoking numbers.

During this year’s Stoptober – where smokers try and quit smoking during the month of October – e-cigarettes were backed for the first time as a viable quitting aid in what was seen as a watershed moment in how vaping is viewed by those in power. This does not sit well with the stricter regulations imposed by the TPD.

So, where does vaping in the UK go from here?

Although leaving the EU should, in theory, free up the UK’s hand with regards to vaping legislation, a desire to retain some trade links with Europe could leave e-cigarettes under the unpopular influence of the TPD. The recent Tobacco Control Plan released by the Department of Health reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to EU legislation until its departure.

However, it also stated: “The government will review where the UK’s exit from the EU offers us opportunities to re-appraise current legislation to ensure this continues to protect the nation’s health.”

“In particular, the government will reassess recent legislation such as the Tobacco Products Directive, including as it applies to e-cigarettes, and consider where the UK’s exit provides opportunity to alter the legislative provisions to provide for improved health outcomes within the UK context.”

Should the UK’s approach of harm reduction – with smokeless cigarettes at the tip of the spear – continue to make such a strong impact on smoker numbers, it seems it could provide a lifeline for vapers in a post-Brexit world.

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