Tobacco or medicinal product? europe divided over e-cigarettes

BRUSSELS Should electronic cigarettes be regulated as tobacco products? Or are they medicinal devices that should only be sold in pharmacies?

That s the debate brewing in Europe after a vote on October 8 by the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

As part of a legislative package aimed at discouraging young people from smoking tobacco, European lawmakers approved a draft law that would regulate the marketing of electronic cigarettes.

The bill still must be approved by the 28 European Union government leaders in the European Council.

The council recommended in June that e cigarettes should be regulated as medicinal products that could help smokers quit a step that would make the devices available only in pharmacies.

But after intense lobbying from the growing electronic cigarette industry, which includes powerful global tobacco companies, the European Parliament refused to heed the council s recommendation.

Instead, lawmakers in Strasbourg voted for the marketing of e cigarettes to be regulated in the same way that tobacco marketing is regulated.

That means sales of e cigarettes to children under 18 would be banned in the European Union, along with most advertising. Health warning labels also would be required.

But the smokeless vaporizing devices and their nicotine cartridge refills could still be sold in tobacco shops and specialist stores.

What Comes Next?

The vote has set the stage for an e cigarette tussle in Brussels. Will the council agree that e cigarettes should be treated like tobacco? Or will the council continue to insist that e cigarettes should be regulated as medicinal devices?

MEP Linda McAvan, a member of Britain s Labour Party, will serve as the European Parliament s rapporteur during negotiations on the issue with the European Council.

McAvan says all members of the European parliament agree that e cigarettes cannot be unregulated on the market. The debate boils down to how they should be regulated.

McAvan says she is certain there is a basis for compromise with EU governments that insist on medicinal regulations.

«Obviously, the European parliament has got a position which is the opposite of that in the sense that it is to be not medicines,» she says. «But at the same time, there are some common elements which are that there should be a regulatory framework. So I think we have to start a dialogue. It s difficult to predict what my colleagues in the European Parliament would accept and what the governments in the European Council will accept. But we ll start those negotiations quite soon.»

Research shows that about 85 percent of e cigarette users start because they want to wean themselves off the habit of smoking tobacco.

The devices vaporize liquid from cartridges that contain different amounts of nicotine, allowing users to gradually reduce their nicotine consumption.

E cigarette consumers say they are «vaping,» rather than smoking.

Helpful Or Harmful?

«It is probably less harmful because it doesn&#39 t contain any byproducts from the burning of tobacco,» one e cigarette user in the Czech capital, Prague, told RFE/RL. «It&#39 s also cheaper. And it&#39 s not smoking. It is something completely different and it takes some getting used to. I have given up tobacco completely. I haven&#39 t smoked a cigarette for 18 months now. And I started smoking when I was 15, so it had been more than 40 years of smoking .»

But Francesco Blasi, a professor of respiratory medicine at the University of Milan and the former president of the European Respiratory Society, told RFE/RL that e cigarettes are still too new to be sure about the long term health implications.

Comment: the eu's insane mission to ban menthol cigarettes

The issue at stake was the committee&#39 s role in scrutinising important legislation before it is imposed on Britain by the regulation hungry European parliament. Desperate to progress the controversial tobacco products directive before the end of Ireland&#39 s six month presidency of the European Council, Soubry had requested waivers from the scrutiny committees in both Houses. The Lords agreed but the Commons scrutiny committee said no.

So what did Soubry do? She brazenly ignored their decision and travelled to Luxemburg where a meeting of health ministers on June 21st agreed, among other things, to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes and increase the size of health warnings on all tobacco products throughout the European Union.

If passed by MEPs in September, the tobacco products directive will also prohibit smaller pouches of roll your own tobacco and severely restrict the shape and size of cigarette packets.

It beggars belief that any Conservative minister would support such severe regulations on a legal product, even one as controversial as tobacco. To allow the EU to impose them, whilst denying any scrutiny of the legislation in Westminster, invites ridicule and contempt.

For years some of us have warned that some public health campaigners and politicians will only be happy when the sale and consumption of tobacco is prohibited and smoking is made illegal. Clearly, we are on the road to prohibition when an entire category, menthol flavoured tobacco, is to be outlawed.

This and other regulations in the directive could have serious repercussions for British retailers, many of whom will struggle with the loss of business. If the products under threat are banned, some UK shops could see 20 per cent of their usual stock of tobacco removed from the shelves. How will they replace the revenue they earn from those products?

The impact of the legislation will also be felt by millions of law abiding consumers who will be denied the choice they once took for granted. Criminal gangs will of course be only too happy to meet demand on the black market, but that&#39 s another matter.

This week the smokers&#39 group Forest launched a new campaign that will give consumers and retailers in Britain a much needed voice against the latest EU Directive. It&#39 s called NoThankEU and it follows the successful Hands Off Our Packs campaign on plain packaging.

The campaign website has more information but here are five reasons to oppose the tobacco products directive

1. Have we learned nothing from history? Prohibition doesn&#39 t work.
2. Excessive regulation will deny consumers choice and drive them to the black market.
3. Criminal gangs will make a fortune manufacturing and selling prohibited products.
4. Don&#39 t let the EU impose an extreme regulatory agenda on UK consumers.
5. What next alcohol, sugary drinks, convenience food?

Meanwhile, Cash believes there has been a breach of the rules. I would put it a little stronger than that and I sincerely hope Soubry and the relevant civil servants are held to account.

But whether she survives as public health minister is neither here nor there. What matters is that no British parliament should meekly roll over when the European Union tries to impose on the UK legislation that strikes at the very heart of our mature, consumer friendly society.

That&#39 s the bigger picture and I hope that even non smokers might agree with that.

Simon Clark is director of the smokers lobby group Forest. He is also author of the Taking Liberties blog. To register your support for the campaign against the tobacco products directive, visit

The opinions in #39 s Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.