Does banning e-cigarettes send the wrong smoke signals?

A few months ago I was on a bus with a young man using an e-cigarette. It was pretty unpleasant. It filled the bus with an awful smelling cloud. 

Their use on buses has been prohibited since June 2013, but it made me think about their use in other public places: I may find it unpleasant, but if it isn’t harmful to me, should they be banned?

E-cigarettes are a booming industry and smokers are turning to them in their millions as a ‘healthy’ alternative. But medical opinion is divided on whether they really should be seen that way.

On Tuesday the Metro ran a story about a new study that suggested that e-cigarettes ‘may cause cancer like normal cigarettes’. On Thursday, the Times had another new study that concluded that doctors should recommend e-cigarettes as a ‘harmless way to help smokers quit’.

It is early days for research into the impact of ‘vaping’ but how should public policy respond?

The Scottish Labour Party is rightly proud of introducing a smoking ban in public places in 2006. It had a transformative effect on public spaces and our attitudes to smoking. Decreases in child asthma, heart attack admissions to A&E and premature births have all been attributed to the smoking ban.

But should the public ban be extended to e-cigarettes? No. Or at least, not yet.

Cigarettes were banned in public places the grounds of their impact on the health of non-smokers. So far, there is no body of evidence that the same can be said for passive vaping. Such evidence would be needed before such a ban could be justified. Otherwise, the grounds upon which the 2006 smoking ban was based become hugely undermined. The state cannot ban e-cigarettes just because we find them objectionable, like I did on that bus.

There also appears be a health case to support holding back from a ban.

About 25% of all deaths in Scotland are linked to smoking tobacco. But smoking related deaths amongst the poorest in Scotland are more than double that among the most well-off. Moving smokers from tobacco to vapour, with a view to quitting entirely, would have a momentous impact upon the overall well-being of Scots as well as tackling this huge health inequality.

If e-cigarettes can be used as an effective replacement therapy that can prevent some of these deaths, we shouldn’t be putting up the barriers to their use, we should be keeping them down.

None of this is to say that e-cigarettes shouldn’t be regulated in terms of safety, standards and advertising and there are plans afoot for this to be the case. And if they are classified as medical products then this opens up the possibility of them being available free on NHS prescription in Scotland.

The smoking ban was one of the greatest achievements of the first decade of the Scottish Parliament. With the evidence and the public on their side, Holyrood enacted legislation that has been, and will continue to be, of tremendous benefit to health of our nation.

But unless the same solid evidence is there for e-cigarettes, we should resist a ban on their use in public places.

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2 thoughts on “Does banning e-cigarettes send the wrong smoke signals?

  1. It will be interesting to see how this issue develops in relation to workplace smoking policies. I suspect that there will be some pressure to review these. Initially they were largely introduced to address health concerns and then adjusted to comply with legislation, if there are not the same concerns about the impact on health will such policies be sustainable?

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    • As with public transport, private companies had smoking bans before there was law in relation to ‘public places’. My employer bans e-cigarettes inside the office. It’s a very interesting area in terms of law, health and ethics.

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