England is set to be the first country in the world to prescribe vapes as a medical product.
New guidance from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) means that vapes, also known as e-cigarettes, could soon be prescribed by the NHS to tobacco smokers who want to give up.
“By following the science, the UK has been a global pioneer in taking a pragmatic and proportionate response to vaping as a public health benefit.,” Harry Shapiro, director of drug charity DrugWise and lead author of a report on global tobacco harm reduction, told Vice World News.
“Vaping devices are readily available in the UK, although more disadvantaged people may well benefit from a prescription. Equally important is the message it sends out to doctors and current smokers that vaping is significantly safer than smoking. Smokers should be encouraged to switch to improve their health and even save their life.”
Vapes, where liquid is heated up and inhaled, do not contain tar or carbon monoxide, the most harmful elements of smoking tobacco. They do contain nicotine, which is addictive.
Even though the number of UK smokers is falling – from 27 per to 14 per cent in the last 20 years – around 64,000 people die each year from smoking. Smoking rates in poor neighbourhoods are three times that in the wealthiest areas.
There are about 6.1 million adult smokers in the UK compared to 3.6 million who use e-cigarettes, most of them ex-smokers. Vapes are the most popular method of giving up smoking.
“I am convinced this will be a game changer,” said Sir Norman Lamb, the former health minister who chaired the Commons science and technology committee’s inquiry into e-cigarettes in 2018 which concluded prescribing vapes would prove a “significant benefit”.
Health and Social Care Secretary, Sajid Javid said: “Opening the door to a licensed e-cigarette prescribed on the NHS has the potential to tackle the stark disparities in smoking rates across the country, helping people stop smoking wherever they live and whatever their background.”
The move comes after the safety of vaping has been hit by controversy in recent years.
In July the head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) branded vapes as "harmful", addictive and said they acted as a gateway for children into smoking tobacco. In response, Professor John Britton, emeritus professor of epidemiology at the University of Nottingham, said: “The WHO still doesn't understand the fundamental difference between addiction to tobacco smoking, which kills millions of people every year, and addiction to nicotine, which doesn't.”
In 2019 an outbreak of vaping related injuries and deaths in the U.S. resulted in several cities and states prohibiting the sale of flavoured vaping products, and a partial ban by the federal government. However it was found that the outbreak was linked to a compound being used in black market THC vape cartridges.
In Australia, there is a de facto ban on e-cigarettes. Although they have been designated a medical product, they are not yet available on prescription due to the difficulty for manufacturers to obtain a license to make them.