Why don’t more young women vape? EU regulations are partly to blame

The government’s current approach to nicotine and tobacco reminds me of the sex education scene in Mean Girls: ‘Don’t have sex. You’ll get pregnant and die.’ Abstinence may be best contraception in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice. Most of us recognise that abstinence doesn’t work for everyone, so instead we focus on reducing the harms of unwanted pregnancies and STDs by teaching teenagers about contraception. Yet, when it comes to tackling the harms of smoking we still stick to an abstinence-only approach.

We are human and will inevitably fall short of the official advice. So just as we encourage teenagers to use contraception, we should make it easier for adults to switch to safer (but not risk-free) alternatives. Public Health England have to their credit highlighted the relative benefits of vaping by pointing out that it’s at least 95 per cent safer than smoking. In other words, it would take 20 non-smokers to take up vaping to outweigh the good of one smoker switching the other way.

British vaping laws aren’t that Victorian, but there’s room for improvement. While we allow vape shops and vaping in public places, e-cigarette manufacturers face stiff regulation and are prevented from talking about the relative risks of vaping compared with smoking.

The EU’s Tobacco Products Directive is particularly pernicious. Brussels’ restrictions cap tank sizes, regulate nicotine content, and restrict the ability for e-cigarette sellers to market their products effectively. We know from other countries that heavy-handed e-cigarette laws don’t help smokers: in Australia, where e-cigarettes are banned, smokers as a proportion of the population dropped by just 0.6 percentage points between 2013-2016. By contrast, the UK’s relatively liberal approach to vaping lead to smoking rates falling by 2.9 percentage points. Japan also banned e-cigarettes, but they allow heat-not-burn products which has resulted in a significant decline in cigarette sales.

America also takes a more realistic approach to tobacco harm reduction in some areas. Juul, an e-cigarette three times too potent for the UK market, is permitted in the US; it’s created a cult on campuses – ‘heroin chic’ no more, it’s ‘Juul dudes’ now. Despite the public health lobby being in hysterics about the ‘Juul epidemic’, since Juul entered the market in 2015 we’ve seen smoking rates fall by 1.6 per cent from 2016-2017.

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