February 3rd, 2017

Vaping and tobacco harm reduction in Ireland - consultation response in five quotes

Vaping in Ireland: already making a difference

On 5th January, Ireland’s Health Information and Quality Authority published a draft Health Technology Assessment on smoking cessation interventions with a press release. The assessment was positive about e-cigarettes.

Dr Máirín Ryan said: “This HTA found a high level of uncertainty surrounding both the clinical and cost-effectiveness of e-cigarettes. While the long-term effects of using e-cigarettes have not yet been established, data from Healthy Ireland reveals that 29% of smokers currently use e-cigarettes as an aid to quitting smoking. HIQA’s analysis shows that increased uptake of e-cigarettes as an aid to quitting would increase the number of people who successfully quit compared with the existing situation in Ireland and would be cost-effective, provided that the currently available evidence on their effectiveness is confirmed by further studies.”

In Ireland, that is very positive!

The report is out for public consultation until the 3rd February 2017.  The consultation page allows for a free-form response.  You can put in whatever information you think will assist the review team.   Here is my response, framed around five quotes from the Royal College of Physicians:

  1. On the relative risk of e-cigarettes and cigarettes
  2. On population effects
  3. On the impact on smoking cessation
  4. On unintended consequences of well-intentioned but excessive or over-cautious regulation
  5. On the recommendation of a tobacco harm reduction strategy

Key elements of Royal College of Physicians’ report on tobacco harm reduction

I would like to draw the attention of the review team to the London-based Royal College of Physician’s 2016 report, Nicotine without smoke: tobacco harm reduction, 28 April 20016, London [link]

Five quotes from the report provide an excellent basis for outlining the main issues relating to e-cigarettes, smoking cessation and tobacco harm reduction:

1. On the relative risk of e-cigarettes and cigarettes

“Although it is not possible to precisely quantify the long-term health risks associated with e-cigarettes, the available data suggest that they are unlikely to exceed 5% of those associated with smoked tobacco products, and may well be substantially lower than this figure.” (Section 5.5 page 87)

This carefully worded statement takes the practical approach of focussing on what scientists do know, rather than unknown or unknowable information that will only become available over many decades and only if the right studies are put in place.  The judgement of relative risk is based on the completely different physics and chemistry of tobacco smoke and e-cigarette aerosol – some we do not have to wait 50 years for.  The former is the product of complex chemical reactions in high-temperature combustion of dried tobacco leaf. The latter is the electrical heating at much lower temperature of an inert liquid bearing nicotine and flavourings – there is no combustion. Most of the important harmful toxins in tobacco smoke are products of combustion.  For this reason, they are either not detectable in e-cigarette aerosol or present at very low levels.

The result is that the overall toxicity of the e-cigarette aerosol is very much lower than cigarette smoke.  As one would expect from such an organisation, the Royal College of Physicians has expressed its statement with careful reflection of uncertainties in both directions, but with a steer to make it clear that 5% of the risk of smoking is a conservative estimate.   At present, there is no credible evidence to suggest these products will cause any serious disease or premature death.  However the claim is not that they are safe, just very much safer.

2. On population effects

“There are concerns that e-cigarettes will increase tobacco smoking by renormalising the act of smoking, acting as a gateway to smoking in young people, and being used for temporary, not permanent, abstinence from smoking. To date, there is no evidence that any of these processes is occurring to any significant degree in the UK. Rather, the available evidence to date indicates that e-cigarettes are being used almost exclusively as safer alternatives to smoked tobacco, by confirmed smokers who are trying to reduce harm to themselves or others from smoking, or to quit smoking completely.” (Recommendations)

This summary address a number of claims made by tobacco control activists to the effect that the availability of a low-risk alternative to smoking would somehow increase smoking. It is worth recognising just how counter-intuitive these claims are, and as such should require a very credible evidence base before they are accepted as remotely plausible. The RCP draws the opposite, more intuitive, conclusion from the evidence, namely that: (1) people use safer products to reduce their risks; (2) that the promotion of vaping promotes vaping, not smoking; (3) any ‘gateways’ seem more likely to be ‘exits’ from the more harmful to less harmful products.

3. On the impact on smoking cessation

“E-cigarettes are marketed as consumer products and are proving much more popular than NRT as a substitute and competitor for tobacco cigarettes. E-cigarettes appear to be effective when used by smokers as an aid to quitting smoking.” (Recommendations)

The RCP makes the important observation that e-cigarettes are consumer products, and that their success in part derives from their appeal to those who would never even try to quit smoking via conventional methods or are unwilling or unable to quit. E-cigarettes are not medical aids to reduce craving and withdrawal during a quit attempt, but an alternative way of taking the recreational drug nicotine. It important, therefore, not to treat e-cigarettes as medicines, to misapply concepts like ‘efficacy’ or to rely on randomised controlled trials that are suited to singular interventions, such as administering a drug.

The ‘efficacy’ of e-cigarettes is not a property of the device and liquid, but the outcome of a complex ecology of behavioural influences, including properties of the product, but also peer support, marketing, beliefs about risk and scare stories in newspapers, local availability, the attitude to smoking/vaping in the social and work environment, and the policy framework – packaging, warnings, restrictions, diversity, marketing, taxation etc.   Users tend to progress over time, acquire vaping skills and switch products to more complex configurations, lower nicotine liquids and more diverse flavours as they migrate away from tobacco.  A period of dual use may be part of a transition that lasts longer than any RCT ever would, but ends in permanent smoking cessation. Because of their poor efficacy, conventional smoking cessation techniques also involve prolonged “dual use”, but this occurs serially with successive quit attempts and relapses back to smoking then the next quit attempt and so on until success or through an indefinite cycle of cessation and relapse.

4. On unintended consequences of well-intentioned but excessive or over-cautious regulation

“A risk-averse, precautionary approach to e-cigarette regulation can be proposed as a means of minimising the risk of avoidable harm, eg exposure to toxins in e-cigarette vapour, renormalisation, gateway progression to smoking, or other real or potential risks. However, if this approach also makes e-cigarettes less easily accessible, less palatable or acceptable, more expensive, less consumer friendly or pharmacologically less effective, or inhibits innovation and development of new and improved products, then it causes harm by perpetuating smoking.Getting this balance right is difficult.” (Section 12.10 page 187)

The RCP draws out the most challenging question for regulators. By regulating or communicating with excessive caution, well-intentioned authorities can make the situation worse, cause avoidable harm to consumers and protect the cigarette trade.  In forming the EU Tobacco Products Directive provisions on e-cigarettes (and the ban on snus), far too little attention was paid the risk that the measures proposed would have harmful unintended consequences. These could arise by reducing appeal, making the products harder to use, by hampering innovation, by raising prices, by denying the means to communicate and, above all, by creating regulatory barriers to entry that have the effect of protecting the incumbent cigarette trade against disruptive innovation.  Ireland’s health community should take great care to avoid compounding these errors.

5. On the recommendation of a tobacco harm reduction strategy

“However, in the interests of public health it is important to promote the use of e-cigarettes, NRT and other non-tobacco nicotine products as widely as possible as a substitute for smoking in the UK.” (Recommendations, original emphasis).

Taking all the available evidence into account, the organisation that first reported on Smoking and Health in 1962, endorses a tobacco harm reduction approach including the promotion of e-cigarettes.

Ireland’s 2025 tobacco policy aims

Ireland’s ambitious goal to be tobacco-free by 2025 has been translated into achieving a smoking prevalence rate of less than 5%. This goal is very ambitious. It will be exceedingly challenging if the only strategies to be deliberately deployed are complete cessation and reduced initiation.  Current rates of decline in smoking are unlikely to come close to meeting this target. However, a third strategy is available, that is to encourage smokers to switch to smoke-free products – primarily e-cigarettes but also other nicotine products that does not involve combustion and smoke.  Many smokers will find it easier to switch from smoking to vaping than to stop both smoking and nicotine use altogether.  The switching strategy only involves giving up part of what is involved in smoking.  Switching from smoking to vaping allows the user to continue using nicotine and to maintain several behavioural and sensory aspects of smoking, though with radically reduced risk and a contribution to the attainment of the 2025 smoking prevalence target.

10 comments to Vaping and tobacco harm reduction in Ireland – consultation response in five quotes

  • […] Clive Bates: Vaping and tobacco harm reduction in Ireland – consultation response in five quotes http://www.clivebates.com/?p=4652 […]

  • Donald Moloney

    Vaping is a lot heatyhier than smoking saves lives
    Saving need hospital beds
    Still haven’t found problem with vaping.
    Vaping is a very successful tool to quitting smoking

  • Lollylulubes

    Something that public health, policy makers and the public also seriously need to be made aware of is that nicotine has never been proven to be addictive in humans. Experts who work with and study nicotine on a daily basis say it isn’t addictive. Vapers routinely find that we gradually lose our tolerance for nicotine with more innovative, superior devices and are forced by the body to reduce the amount we use. I started out on 24mg/ml, having smoked 15-20 cigarettes a day and now use 6mg/ml – I found it became too strong and less enjoyable. I reduced in 6mg/ml intervals and never even noticed the change. That isn’t addiction. This should shut down, once and for all, the oft touted lie that is the gateway to smoking theory. In fact, when pharma applied for and won approval for the long term and concomitant use of NRT with other nicotine containing products, including cigarettes, the FDA gave their approval with no concerns for safety or abuse (addiction), so their pretend concerns about nicotine go against what they already know.

    I’ve been vaping for four years and although I know I could go without nicotine, I intend to carry on with it because of its benefits. Aside from the fact that it’s proven to be beneficial for various cognitive diseases, as well as Ulcerative Colitis; due to the bacteriacidal properties of both nicotine and propylene glycol, I haven’t had a single cough, cold or chest infection in my time as a vaper, but I used to have several a year as a smoker and I’ve seen many others same the same.

    The habit of the smoking behaviour is very deeply ingrained, which is another reason I choose to continue to vape and it’s a big reason why vaping works; because it prevents relapse to smoking. However, I also vape because I quite simply enjoy it and certainly more so than smoking. So what! When NRT came to the market, suddenly the “nicotine is highly addictive; as addictive as cocaine and heroin” was massively ramped up and self reinforced everyday by smokers trying to quit. A public health fail done in order to flog patches and gum for pharma. When you consider that it can be prescribed to 12 year olds, is available over the counter and can be given to never smokers in clinical trials for cognitive diseases, in high doses for six months at a time, commonsense tells you that message is wrong.

    Is Nicotine Addictive http://www.ecigarette-politics.com/is-nicotine-addictive.html
    Experts’ Quotes: http://www.ecigarette-politics.com/vaping-quotes.html

    • Clive Bates

      Good comment – I hope you put it into the Irish consultation too…

      • Lollylulubes

        Annoyingly, Clive, I’d had a really busy few days and only came across your post very late last night, by which time, the consultation had closed. For decades, so many people have believed that nicotine is a highly addictive toxic poison, it will take a colossal effort to change minds.

        • Clive Bates

          Seems a shame to waste it. I doubt they will have heard that insight before. Why not email a polished up version to the email address on the consultation page: Patrick Moran at [email protected] with some sort of explanation and ask for it to be included. May not work, but might – since you’ve already written it, not much to lose.

          Clive

      • Lollylulubes

        Hi Clive, There’s no ‘Reply’ option on your last comment, so I’m using this one. I took your advice, thanks and emailed Patrick Moran, along with a few links. Fingers crossed it’s included in the responses.
        Nicki
        p.s. Love your blogs :-)

      • Lollylulubes

        Clive, Good news! I received a reply from Patrick Moran first thing this morning.
        “Dear Nicki,
        Thanks for your submission, I can confirm that it will be considered as we work to finalise the report. As well as the final report, we will also prepare a summary of the feedback we received and what changes, were made as a result. I’ll notify you once that is published.

        Thanks again,
        Patrick

        • Clive Bates

          Excellent – well done… a bit of persistence pays off! I think it’s a good perspective to add to their analysis…

      • Lollylulubes

        I actually expanded on my comment quite a bit, whilst I had the chance. Flavours, Demand = Supply, Children, Safety, Toxicity, Lethal Dose, TPD, two vaping markets, USA propaganda, how vapers would love to engage and vaping being the best chance for their endgame imo. I provided appropriate links and recommended trusted blogs; including yours, of course. :-)

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