A committee of MPs is to examine the impact of electronic cigarettes on human health, including their effectiveness as a stop-smoking tool and evidence for potential harms.
The Commons science and technology select committee will also assess the need for regulations on the use of e-cigarettes and the financial implications of their growing popularity on both business and the NHS.
“It is essential we get rules around their regulation and availability right, rather than simply restricting use”
The cross-party committee of MPs noted that conventional smoking fell to 7.6 million adult smokers in the UK in 2016, while the use of e-cigarettes had risen to an estimated 2.9 million adults.
As the new products have grown in popularity, so have questions over their safety and whether they should be actively supported in the NHS as smoking cessation tools or viewed as a step back towards normalising smoking tobacco.
New rules for nicotine-containing electronic cigarettes and refill containers were introduced in May 2016 on the back of a European Union directive on tobacco products.
Meanwhile, in July 2017, the government published its tobacco control plan, which emphasised that the Department of Health would be monitoring the impact of e-cigarette regulations.
In addition, it said Public Health England would continue to provide evidence-based guidance on what is known, and unknown, about the risks of e-cigarettes relative to smoking.
The committee said it would welcome written submissions to its inquiry by 8 December 2017 on the health, regulatory and financial implications of e-cigarettes.
In terms of human health, the MPs said they were looking for evidence on the impact of e-cigarettes – themselves and relative to conventional smoking – and any gaps in the knowledge-base.
In addition, they wanted to know about the benefits and risks of e-cigarettes as a “stop smoking” tool, and whether any approaches were needed to tackle e-cigarette addiction.
They also wanted to hear about the uptake of e-cigarettes among young people and evidence on whether e-cigarettes played a role in “re-normalising’ smoking”.
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As well as questions on current international and national regulation, MPs said they wanted to investigate the effectiveness of advertising restrictions and the need for any safety regulations.
In addition, on finance, the MPs said they would look at the public finances implications of e-cigarettes, including how the rise in e-cigarette consumption could affect NHS costs.
“I am launching an inquiry to understand more about the implications of this growing industry for public health and the NHS”
They added that they would like to hear views on whether policy and regulation had kept up with the full range of “smoking” and new products, such as “heat not burn”, that had become available.
Select committee chair Norman Lamb, Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk, said: “As with any innovation in public health, we should be following the evidence when it comes to e-cigarettes.
“We should be very cautious of the unintended consequences of taking a heavy handed approach such as banning them in all indoor public places, as has just been done in New York,” he said.
“That could be a backward step for millions of people who have found them a helpful tool as they attempt to quit smoking,” stated Mr Lamb, as he announced the new inquiry.
He said: “While there are still gaps in the evidence around e-cigarettes, we know they have been effective for many people who are trying to stop smoking tobacco, so it is essential we get rules around their regulation and availability right, rather than simply restricting use.
“As chair of the science and technology committee, I am launching an inquiry to understand more about the implications of this growing industry for public health and the NHS, to ensure people are able to make safe and informed decisions about the use of e-cigarettes,” he added.