E-cigarettes, estimated as 95% less harmful than conventional cigarettes, are too often being overlooked as a stop smoking tool by the NHS, especially in mental health settings, according to MPs.
They said it was “unacceptable” that a third of the 50 mental health trusts in England had banned e-cigarettes on their premises, given that second hand e-cigarette vapour posed such an insignificant risk.
“It is extraordinary that one-third of mental health trusts ban the use of e-cigarettes completely”
They recommended that NHS England should set a policy for mental health facilities to allow e-cigarette use by patients, unless trusts could demonstrate evidence-based reasons for not doing so.
More broadly, the Commons’ science and technology select committee said in a report that regulations should be relaxed relating to e-cigarettes’ licensing, prescribing and advertising of their health benefits.
The committee’s report, published today, concluded that e-cigarettes could significantly accelerate declining smoking rates, thereby tackling one of the largest current causes of death in the UK.
The cross-party committee examined the impact of electronic cigarettes on human health, the suitability of regulations guiding their use, and the financial implications for both business and the NHS.
“If used correctly, e-cigarettes could be a key weapon in the NHS’s stop smoking arsenal”
It noted that the government arms’-length body Public Health England (PHE) had estimated e-cigarettes to be less harmful than conventional cigarettes by around 95%.
In comparison to their more dangerous counterparts, e-cigarettes lacked the tar and carbon monoxide –the most dangerous components produced by combustion – found in conventional cigarettes, it said.
The report noted that about 2.9 million people in the UK were currently using e-cigarettes and it was estimated that 470,000 people were using them as an aid to stop smoking.
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Norman Lamb, chair of the committee and Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk, said: “E-cigarettes are less harmful than conventional cigarettes, but current policy and regulations do not sufficiently reflect this.
“Concerns that e-cigarettes could be a gateway to conventional smoking, including for young non-smokers, have not materialised,” he said. “If used correctly, e-cigarettes could be a key weapon in the NHS’s stop smoking arsenal.
“E-cigarettes are a proven stop smoking tool and, while uncertainties undoubtedly remain about their long-term health impact, failing to explore the use of e-cigarettes could lead to the continued use of conventional cigarettes – which currently kill around 79,000 people in England every year,” he said.
Mr Lamb also highlighted that the percentage of people smoking among those with mental health conditions remained “stubbornly high”, compared to the declining trend in the general population.
“Government, regulators and service providers should take note”
He said: “People with mental health conditions are almost 2.5 times more likely to smoke compared to the general population.
“It is therefore extraordinary that one-third of mental health trusts ban the use of e-cigarettes completely, while three-quarters of NHS trusts are mistakenly concerned about ‘second-hand’ e-cigarette vapour. This is unacceptable,” he stated.
He added: “Those with mental ill health are being badly let down and NHS England appear to have failed to give this any priority. NHS England’s default policy should be that e-cigarettes should be permitted in mental health units.”
Duncan Selbie, chief executive of PHE, said: “E-cigarettes are not without harm but are way safer than the harms of tobacco.
“We want to see a tobacco-free generation within 10 years and this is within sight,” he said in response to the report.
Professor Linda Bauld, professor of health policy at the University of Stirling, said: “This report is a welcome and evidence-based respite from all the scare stories we see about vaping.
“Its recommendations are not likely to be popular with all, and some of them may be difficult or complex to implement. But government, regulators and service providers should take note,” she said.
George Butterworth, senior policy manager at Cancer Research UK, said e-cigarette regulations “should be aimed at helping smokers to quit whilst preventing young people from starting to use e-cigarettes”.