Rules around e-cigarettes should be relaxed to help accelerate already declining smoking rates, MPs have said.
Vaping is less harmful than conventional smoking and the two should not be treated as the same, according to a report by the UK’s Science and Technology Committee.
There should be an urgent review to make it easier for e-cigarettes to be made available on prescription, “wider debate” on vaping in public spaces, and greater freedom for the industry to advertise the devices as a less harmful option for smokers, they said.
An end to the ban on “snus”, an oral tobacco product which is illegal in the UK under EU regulations, should also be considered after Brexit, according to the report.
Norman Lamb, chairman of the committee, said: “E-cigarettes are less harmful than conventional cigarettes, but current policy and regulations do not sufficiently reflect this and businesses, transport providers and public places should stop viewing conventional and e-cigarettes as one and the same.”
“There is no public health rationale for doing so.”
“Concerns that e-cigarettes could be a gateway to conventional smoking, including for young non-smokers, have not materialised.”
“If used correctly, e-cigarettes could be a key weapon in the NHS stop-smoking arsenal.”
Public Health England (PHE) has estimated that e-cigarettes are at least 95% less harmful than smoking.
While “uncertainties” remain about the long-term health impact of the devices, they present “an opportunity to significantly accelerate already declining smoking rates”, the committee of MPs said.
Mr Lamb said: “Medically licensed e-cigarettes would make it easier for doctors to discuss and recommend them as a stop smoking tool to aid those quitting smoking.
“The approval systems for prescribing these products must be urgently reviewed.”
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), said: “Today’s call to improve the process to enable e-cigarettes to be licensed as medicines is extremely welcome.
“E-cigarettes have already helped many smokers to quit, but they could help many more.
“Licenced products could transform the public’s understanding of e-cigarettes and help many more smokers see vaping as a viable alternative to smoking.”
The report also called for limits on refill strengths and tank sizes, which may put off heavy smokers looking for a strong nicotine-hit, to be reviewed.
Meanwhile, NHS England’s “default” policy should be that e-cigarettes are permitted on mental health units, to address the “stubbornly high” levels of smoking among people with mental health conditions, the report said.
George Butterworth, from Cancer Research UK, said: “The evidence so far shows that e-cigarettes are far less harmful than tobacco.”
“The Government should carefully consider the report’s recommendations, but any changes to current e-cigarette regulations should be aimed at helping smokers to quit whilst preventing young people from starting to use e-cigarettes.”
Around 2.9 million people in the UK are currently using e-cigarettes, with an estimated 470,000 using them as an aid to stop smoking, according to the report.
Duncan Selbie, chief executive of PHE, said: “E-cigarettes are not without harm but are way safer than the harms of tobacco.
“This is about comparing e-cigarettes to normal cigarettes, not fresh air.
“The UK leads the world in harm reduction from tobacco and there is no evidence that they are acting as a gateway into smoking for young people.
“We want to see a tobacco-free generation within 10 years and this is within sight.”
Alison Cook, director of policy at the British Lung Foundation, said the inquiry report “provides clarity on the potential” of the devices.
“The choice to switch to e-cigarettes must be made easier,” she added.