When Regulations Kill

by Andrew Stuttaford

The Financial Times:

Electronic cigarette users are set to be banished to the pavement alongside their tobacco-smoking cousins – and face similar hefty prices – if the World Health Organisation pushes ahead with plans to regulate e-cigarettes in the same way as normal tobacco. Leaked documents seen by the Financial Times revealed that parts of the WHO are keen to classify the battery-powered devices as tobacco under the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a WHO treaty that obliges governments to curtail smoking rates across the globe.

Regulatory concerns around e-cigarettes range from unease about the level of nicotine within products to fears that their usage will “renormalise” tobacco and undermine current antismoking laws, such as advertising bans. Dr Haik Nikogosian, who oversees the secretariat of the FCTC, said that e-cigarettes “could result in a new wave of the tobacco epidemic”, in a meeting that set the agenda for the November meeting in Moscow, according to minutes seen by the FT.

He added that “he felt more importance should be given to the threat posed by electronic cigarettes”, according to the minutes.

Attendees at the meeting, which included representatives from the WHO’s six global regions, said that e-cigarettes “would be considered as tobacco products as per the WHO FCTC” if they contained nicotine made from tobacco leaves, according to the minutes.

This definition would cover the vast majority of e-cigarette companies, the bulk of whom manufacture liquid nicotine – which is heated, then inhaled as vapour – from tobacco leaves. The move would see e-cigarettes face the same advertising bans, public smoking limits and hefty excise duty that apply to normal cigarettes, potentially stymieing the products’ rapid growth.

And people will die as a result.

Writing last month, Matt Ridley took a bludgeon to those looking to regulate e-cigarettes away:

Why are public health officials so resistant? The European Commission frequently displays a precautionary bias against innovation, weighing any risk of a new product, however small, but not the risk of an old product it might replace — hence its attitude to genetically modified crops. In raising the unknown (but small) risks of e-cigarettes, the public health establishment is missing the point. What counts is harm reduction, not perfect utopian safety. Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good, said Voltaire. The ban on strong e-cigarettes, the ones preferred by those trying to quit smoking, could prevent the saving of 105,000 European lives a year, according to modelling by London Economics.

And there’s the Dunning-Kruger effect, whereby incompetent people are too incompetent to see incompetence. An EU official with a lower second-class degree from the University of Malta so badly mangled the results of 15 scientists on harm reduction by e-cigarettes that they all wrote to correct him.

…The British government’s medical regulator, the MHRA, sticks obstinately to its belief that medicinal regulation will improve technological progress in e-cigarettes, ignoring reams of evidence that high barriers to entry inevitably stifle innovation. Doctors, represented by the BMA, seem to hate the idea of people buying, rather than being prescribed, products that stop them smoking…Big Pharma wants regulation of its rivals because it makes a packet out of nicotine replacement therapies (patches and gums), which have a poor track record of helping people to quit. And politicians? Well, they just seem to enjoy banning things. In short, says Professor Gerry Stimson of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the public health response to e-cigarettes has been dominated by attempts to regain ownership of the issue from a consumer-led self-help movement. “Not invented here” — the old bureaucrat’s cry.

WHO should take a hike.

The Corner

The one and only.