Is Germany finally embracing vaping as a harm reduction tool?
In the United Kingdom, vaping is on the frontline in the battle against smoking. Electronic cigarettes are now a common sight, with Action on Smoking and Health finding earlier this year that some 2.9m Britons now vape.
But despite this apparent miracle weapon in the war on tobacco – the Royal College of Physicians and Public Health England have concluded that electronic cigarettes represent just five per cent of the cancer risk of conventional cigarettes – Britain has stood alone in embracing them as a viable alternative to smoking.
That, however, appears to be changing.
Experts in mainland Europe have remained far from convinced about nontraditional cigarettes merits, with Germany in particular a dissenting voice. Much of the skepticism surrounding electronic cigarettes – and in particular their use as a viable means of smoking cessation – stemmed from a lack of long-term research into their impact on health. Having only been invented in 2003, there remains a relative lack of knowledge on their long-term effects.
But, as pointed out by Dr Ute Mons, head of the cancer prevention staff unit at the German Cancer Research Center, as more time passes, the indications are that they continue to represent a far less harmful alternative to traditional smoking. “E-cigarettes are a relatively new product, and we knew relatively little about them at the outset,” she says. “Therefore, there were lots of warnings at first and, consequently, lots of negative headlines relating to e-cigarettes. And in the (German) media, this has still not changed even though the consensus among scientists is a different one now.”
“Conventional cigarettes hold such a great potential for damage because the tobacco is burned,” she continues. “That potential for damage is not present in e-cigarettes.”
So, with medical and scientific opinion slowly starting to turn in Germany, why are electronic cigarettes still not being embraced as an invaluable quitting tool like they are across the channel? For starters, there are side-effects which a skeptical country still struggles to forget. Despite their hugely favorable comparison to traditional cigarettes, vaping can still lead to nicotine addiction, while many of the flavorings contain substances that can cause allergies or irritation of the respiratory system. “They are a product with a risk potential, and not a harmless lifestyle product,” says Dr Mons.
Furthermore, with the bulk of electronic systems still coming from a vast yet questionably-regulated Chinese market, the quality of each device is far from guaranteed. Yet is seems that it is the societal view of smoking and electronic cigarettes which explains German skepticism towards vaping. Dr Mons says: “The United Kingdom takes a basically different approach toward smoking cessation. There, they have Stop Smoking Services providing support to smokers willing to quit. Similarly, the public health system subsidizes instruments serving the purpose of smoking cessation.”
This year saw Stoptober – the government-backed scheme rolled out in the UK to try and encourage smokers to give up for 28 days – embrace electronic cigarettes as a cessation tool for the first time in its six-year history. But in Germany, cigarettes are frequently seen as lifestyle products by health insurance funds, explaining why vaping gains surprisingly little traction as a means of quitting. Switching from a normal cigarette to an electronic version is simply seen as a change of lifestyle choice.
“In addition, damage minimization as a smoking cessation strategy has not yet caught on in Germany,” continues Dr Mons, referring to the increasingly popular strategy of harm reduction. It revolves the idea of lessening the negative impact of tobacco on both the individual and those around them.
With just with 16.9 per cent of adults now smoking in the UK – a percentage bettered only by a number of Scandinavian counties in Europe – it looks like Britain is beating a successful path in the battle against smoking. Other European countries have certainly been slow to react, but it seems the tide is turning as perceptions towards vaping continue to shift.