England is set to become the first country in the world to prescribe e-cigarettes to help smokers quit.
Despite a torrent of evidence on the health risks of vaping, the medical regulator is to ‘pave the way’ for it to be offered on the NHS.
Manufacturers will be able to submit e-cigarettes to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency to undergo the same ‘approvals process’ as other medicines.
This means they could then be licensed as a medical product and prescribed by doctors on a case-by-case basis to people who want to quit traditional cigarettes.
Currently, the NHS advises that vaping can help smokers – though it is not available on prescription.
But last night Health Secretary Sajid Javid said opening the door to licensed e-cigarettes on the NHS had the ‘potential to tackle the stark disparities in smoking rates across the country, helping people stop smoking wherever they live and whatever their background’.
E-cig devices typically cost around £20 to £30, plus more for replacement cartridges.
The controversial move comes despite the World Health Organisation saying last year that the devices are ‘undoubtedly harmful’.
Currently, the NHS advises that vaping can help smokers – though it is not available on prescription (file photo)
It concluded at the time that there was not enough evidence for their use in helping people to stop smoking.
The World Heart Federation, meanwhile, has called for greater regulation to tackle the ‘e-cigarette epidemic’.
Around 2.7million adults in England already vape, with the industry in the UK worth around £1billion.
E-cigarettes contain a liquid form of nicotine that is heated into vapour to be inhaled, avoiding the harm caused by tobacco smoke.
Health experts agree that the devices are much safer than smoking. But there have been shocking cases of illness linked to vaping.
And since May 2016, there have been three deaths in the UK linked to e-cigarettes or similar vaping products.
Many scientists are worried about safety concerns, particularly linked to the liquids used to flavour e-cigarettes.
Studies have linked these to ‘popcorn lung’ – a severe health problem which in extreme cases can require a lung transplant.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid (pictured) said opening the door to licensed e-cigarettes on the NHS had the ‘potential to tackle the stark disparities in smoking rates across the country, helping people stop smoking wherever they live and whatever their background’
Last night, Mr Javid said: ‘This country continues to be a global leader on healthcare, whether it’s our Covid-19 vaccine rollout saving lives or our innovative public health measures reducing people’s risk of serious illness.
‘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 new plans are part of the ambition for England to be smoke-free by 2030.
It is unclear whether the devolved health services in Scotland and Wales will follow suit on e-cigarette licensing.
While rates are at record low levels in the UK, smoking is still the leading cause of preventable death and there are still around 6.1million smokers in England, and in some areas such as Blackpool and Kingston upon Hull, almost one in four people smoke.
Supporters of vaping point to British research estimating that in 2017 e-cigarettes helped more than 50,000 smokers in England to quit.
However the World Heart Federation has cited evidence that e-cigarettes ‘hook first-time users’, with smokers who start using e-cigarettes often becoming dual users of both traditional and electronic cigarettes.
Some of the highest success rates of those trying to quit smoking are among people using an e-cigarette to kick their addiction alongside local Stop Smoking services, with up to 68 per cent successfully quitting in 2020/21.
Many scientists are worried about safety concerns, particularly linked to the liquids used to flavour e-cigarettes. Studies have linked these to ‘popcorn lung’ – a severe health problem which in extreme cases can require a lung transplant (file photo)
However critics of the devices say psychological support is the major factor in helping people to quit.
Professor Martin McKee from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – who is against the promotion of e-cigarettes – said: ‘It is bizarre and puzzling that this announcement on paving the way to prescribing e-cigarettes comes so soon after the World Heart Federation has called on strict regulations to stop the vaping epidemic.
‘The e-cigarette industry has had more than ten years to provide really good evidence that these devices are the solution to tobacco smoking and it has not done so.
‘It is notable that the industry has struggled to convince regulators of the effectiveness of e-cigarettes almost everywhere else in the world.’
Professor Peter Hajek, director of the Tobacco Dependence Research Unit at Queen Mary University of London, said: ‘Smokers are more likely to benefit from e-cigarettes if they can select flavours, strengths and products that they like, rather than being limited to whatever becomes licensed.
‘It also does not seem necessary for the NHS to pay for something that smokers are happy to buy themselves.’