UK Parliamentary Debate on E-cigarette Regulation and WHO Position

UK Parliamentary Debate on E-cigarette Regulation and WHO Position
UK Parliament held a backbench debate on e-cigarette regulation, challenging the WHO's negative stance, ahead of COP10.

On January 18th, a backbench debate took place in the British Parliament, allowing backbench MPs to raise local or national issues and receive responses from relevant government ministers. The debate focused on the regulation of e-cigarettes in the UK, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the differing approaches between the organization and the British government towards e-cigarettes. The debate was initiated by MPs Andrew Lewer, Mr Virendra Sharma, and Martyn Day, in an attempt to challenge the WHO's negative position on the regulation of e-cigarettes.

UK Parliamentary Debate on E-cigarette Regulation and WHO Position
Member of Parliament Andrew Lewer speaks in the backbench debate after 18th January. |Image source: 2FIRSTS.

Do not view this issue naively.

UK Parliamentary Debate on E-cigarette Regulation and WHO Position
Virendra Sharma spoke at the back seat debate on January 18. Image source: 2FIRSTS.

The World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) tenth Conference of the Parties, which was previously forced to be postponed, has now been officially scheduled to take place from February 5 to 10 in Panama. The United Kingdom will be sending a delegation to participate in this conference, and discussions on emerging tobacco issues will be one of the key focal points.

UK Parliamentary Debate on E-cigarette Regulation and WHO Position
Dame Andrea Jacqueline Leadsom spoke in the debate on January 18|Image source: 2FIRSTS

For years, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been dedicated to controlling the use of tobacco and nicotine products, particularly e-cigarettes. According to a report dated December 14, 2023, WHO emphasizes the need for immediate action to regulate e-cigarettes in order to protect children and non-smokers, while minimizing the health hazards for the general population. WHO points out that the nicotine found in e-cigarettes is highly addictive and harmful to health.

MP Andrew defended this during the meeting. He cited a survey conducted by Cancer Research UK, stating that "it is not nicotine, but rather the chemicals produced during the combustion of tobacco that cause lung cancer.

Based on these theoretical findings, Andrew, a senator, views vape as a "tobacco harm reduction product" throughout the entire debate, which aligns with the overall direction of the UK government's anti-smoking policy. He firmly maintains two central arguments. First, new tobacco products, including vape, should not be subjected to the same tax rates as traditional cigarettes. Second, flavored vape should not be prohibited. "If there is no tax advantage (in terms of pricing) and no flavor difference (compared to cigarettes), what else would motivate people to quit smoking?" he argues.

Andrew not only called on the British delegation to uphold the country's stance on the efficacy of e-cigarettes in smoking cessation at the international conference, but also questioned the entire WHO institution during the debate. He also raised the need to review the amount of donations from the UK to the organization. This is because the UK is currently one of the largest financial contributors to the WHO and it is important to ensure that "taxpayer's money is being used wisely.

The co-founder of the debate, Vilendra, who spoke later, stated, "COP10 and WHO should not make it harder for people who want to quit smoking by relying on e-cigarettes." Therefore, the policies that overly regulate e-cigarettes, heated tobacco, and oral nicotine pouches are subject to debate.

He also mentioned that while the United Kingdom is a global leader in tobacco harm reduction policies, there is still room for improvement by drawing on the advanced experiences of other countries in effectively controlling smoking using alternative nicotine products. He cited examples from Japan and Sweden, where heated tobacco and oral tobacco products have significantly reduced smoking rates. The UK can still find better ways to strike a balance and achieve a more desirable outcome.

Karin Marguerite Smyth, the Labour Party politician and member of the Bristol North constituency, also participated in the debate. After expressing her anticipation for the UK delegation's participation in the treaty conference and conveying the nation's voice, she stated that many MPs had received letters of inquiry from their constituents regarding e-cigarettes and smoking, as this would be a central topic at COP10. Voters are concerned that this conference will impact the future use of e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation tool for UK citizens. She inquired whether the Minister of Public Health plans to include other nicotine products in the regulatory process in an upcoming government bill.

Dame Andrea Jacqueline Leadsom, who took office as Deputy Minister of Public Health, Life Origin and Primary Healthcare Affairs since November 2023, is responsible for responding to inquiries in this debate. She holds contrary opinions to some of the arguments raised by the aforementioned members of parliament.

Using her own experience as a teenager who smoked and struggled to quit, she refutes the idea that nicotine is completely harmless and reiterates its addictive nature. She also questions some of the views held by the aforementioned lawmakers. She argues that flavors like cherry soda and bubblegum are not intended for adults, evident in their child-friendly packaging and association with candy-like products. E-cigarettes, displayed alongside candies at low prices affordable for pocket money, raise concerns. Therefore, she urges the lawmakers not to naively approach this issue and emphasizes that robust enforcement measures are necessary to prevent the sale of e-cigarettes to minors.

In anticipation of the upcoming COP10, she described the UK as a "distinctive" country when it comes to the issue of e-cigarettes. Therefore, she intends to clearly outline the UK's stance at the conference, stating that e-cigarettes are a crucial tool in helping adults quit smoking. "However, in terms of altering the current level of donations to the WHO, the UK government leans towards maintaining the existing amount." She concluded by stating her intention to provide a statement to Parliament after COP10, to provide an account of the conference proceedings.

The E-cigarette in the Backseat Debate

This is not the first time that tobacco (or novel tobacco) has emerged as a hot issue in the British political debate.

According to incomplete statistics, in June 2020, members of the coalition government initiated a debate against the ban on importing liquid nicotine for e-cigarettes. On November 3, 2022, the lower house also debated the "Independent Review of the 2030 Smoking Ban Policy." Just earlier this week, there was another debate on e-cigarettes. On January 16, Conservative Party member Peter Gibson chaired a discussion on the issues of black-market/gray-market vape products (illegally imported) and underage illegal use of e-cigarettes.

There has been a significant difference in stance between the United Kingdom and the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding new tobacco products, particularly vaping. The British government has consistently supported e-cigarettes as a substitute to reduce the harm caused by smoking. According to the UK government's viewpoint, e-cigarettes can help smokers quit and pose much lower risks compared to traditional tobacco products.

A report by Policy Exchange, a British policy think tank, has revealed the significant impact of smoking on the economy. It suggests that reducing smoking rates not only improves health conditions and alleviates the burden on the national healthcare system, but also enhances productivity and boosts economic growth.

2FIRSTS will continue to monitor the upcoming Tenth Conference of the Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (COP10) to be held in Panama, as well as the tobacco control policy in the United Kingdom, and developments in both traditional and new forms of tobacco regulation.

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