Friday 5 April 2013

Anna Soubry on e-cigarettes and plain packaging

This week, Anna Soubry, the public health minister, and Andrew Black, the DoH Tobacco Programme Director, appeared in front of a Select Committee to discuss the EU Tobacco Products Directive. You can read the full transcript here, but the main points are these:

Soubry repeated the old lies about rates of asthma and acute myocardial infarction falling after the smoking ban, thereby showing how quickly junk science can be adopted as truth at the highest levels of government. I guess it's too much to ask a health minister to consult the Department of Health's own figures to see if hospital admissions did fall as has been claimed in reality.

On the subject of plain packaging, she seemed to be generally in favour and claimed to be "slightly confused" by the idea that making all cigarette packs look the same might make counterfeiters' job easier. She did at least recognise what is the main driver of the illicit trade at the moment...

This is strictly my own view but I think that one of the reasons why we have a counterfeit trade——this may be absolutely obvious——is because of the high price of cigarettes.

Yes, it is obvious. Perhaps she should notify her employees at ASH?

She appears to have swallowed the idea that cigarette packs make people start smoking...

We know that the package itself plays an important part in the process of young people and their decision to buy a packet and to smoke cigarettes.

We know nothing of the sort and it has only been very recently that anti-smoking campaigners have made such a claim.

She does, however, say that the government will give equal weight to everybody who responded to the public consultation—in which those who are against amply outnumbered those who are in favour—and said:

Anna Soubry MP: I genuinely do not know whether or not the Government will put such a proposal into the Queen’’s Speech.

Lord Blencathra: Would you recommend it from your Department? Would you recommend that they should?

Anna Soubry MP: You know that I cannot give my view. You are being very naughty, my Lords.

As for the Tobacco Products Directive, one of the main bones of contention is the de facto ban on e-cigarettes that would come about from lowering nicotine levels well below the point at which they have any consumer appeal.

Lord Blencathra: We have received some written evidence from a doctor and he seems to be suggesting, if I understand the scientific figures, that the amount of liquid nicotine in the e-cigarettes would be insufficient to keep smokers hooked on the electronic one because it is too low. He seems to suggest that unless the amount of nicotine liquid in e- cigarettes is slight higher, or at a level compatible with what a 20-a-day smoker would get, then people will find that they are getting no kick from these electronic cigarettes and will all switch back to normal fags. Do you accept there is some argument there which your scientists are looking at——the level of nicotine gel, liquid, whatever?

Anna Soubry MP: The straight answer is yes. For example, there is an argument to be advanced that you could actually buy different strengths of nicotine within an e-cigarette as part of your programme, your own personal plan, to stop smoking. For example, I stopped smoking, not overnight and by going cold turkey, which I would have found exceptionally difficult, but by slowly reducing the amount of cigarettes that I smoked, down and down to one or two a day until I finally stopped smoking. I never did stop smoking; I just stopped buying cigarettes and scrounging them from other people. These are the kind of psychological games that one plays. For those people who do want to give up smoking, I can see that they may well want to move on to e-cigarettes, or supplement them in some way and then move fully on to e-cigarettes, and then reduce the amount of nicotine until the time comes when they are actually able to say, ““I am no longer engaging in this””.

Lord Blencathra: Is that an argument that you would make in your discussions with the EU?

Anna Soubry MP: Yes. Very much. Well, I would hope so. I have just dropped my official in it now. No. I mean you have got to, have you not?

Lord Richard: I want to deal with the same matter. We have had an interesting letter, out of the blue, from a Dr Upton in Falmouth. He said: ““I have today watched with interest the committee meeting regarding the”” European Tobacco Products Directive, and then he sets out in great detail the scientific evidence. He comes to this conclusion: ““I am embarrassed to admit that I was a smoker myself until August 2012””. He then goes on to talk about e-cigarettes. He said, ““I tried an e-cigarette at my wife’’s insistence during July of last year with the full expectation that it could not possibly work. I made the assumption that with the amount of money that the NHS spends on smoking cessation, e-cigarettes would’’ve been recommended by my own GP, had they been safe and efficacious””. He had a sort of Damascus moment, as far as one can see. He then came to this conclusion: ““I am now convinced that we currently cannot say that e-cigarettes are safe (and we will almost certainly be unable to do so objectively for another 10 to 20 years). However, I strongly believe that the evidence of analyses that I have seen in peer reviewed documents indicates to me that e-cigarettes are somewhere between 95-99% safer than combustible cigarettes and that they may prove to be 100% safe——only time will tell””. Do you share that conclusion?

Anna Soubry MP: I could not say that I do or do not because I do not have the requisite knowledge, skill and expertise to say so. What I would say is that I hope you will share his views with me and I will put them through to the Department and into the debate——because we clearly are having a debate——as to what we should do with these cigarettes. No doubt these are good points well made.

Lord Richard: But do you take the basic point that an e-cigarette is safer than a combustible cigarette?

Anna Soubry MP: Oh yes. I do not think anybody would argue that it could be anything other.

I quoted this at length because it shows that there is significant awareness of this problem. It remains to be seen whether they will do anything about it or if they will allow the EU to push several million people back onto real cigarettes.


Dick Puddlecote said...

"Oh yes. I do not think anybody would argue that it could be anything other"

She'd be wrong. There's a mechanical engineer who thinks they're not only just as dangerous, but also lethal to passers-by.

Jonathan Bagley said...

She's still talking about ecigs being part of some plan to stop smoking, with certain approved strengths available. They can't get into their heads that most users think of them as they think of shots of espresso or cans of Red Bull. Or perhaps it's all a sham and the drug companies are in charge? Assuming not, I'm sure part of the problem was their being called ecigs, but even without that, there seems to be an ingrained view that nicotine is dangerous - unless it's bought from Boots the Chemist. At least the Lords have a grasp of what's going on.

Colonel Shotover said...

Good and bad letters in the Economist this week after last weeks piece in favour of e-cigs

Xopher said...

I would be interested to know who the select committee were.
Was ASH able to load it with any of its puppets?

Unknown said...

Ho hum. There goes my MP, taking not one jot of notice of all the useful stuff I sent her about plain packaging and SHS (like this website), nor of my plea that she at least read the objections from the police. Well, what else can you expect of someone who still doesn't live in their own constituency and who is apparently wholly indifferent to the willful destruction of a large part of it by an unwanted and unneeded tram system?

timbone said...

An interesting point about the EU directive concerning strength of ecigs is this.
They have said it should not exceed 4mg. I take it that they are comparing them with NRT gum and lozenges, which contain a maximum of 4mg.
The 'inhalator', a NRT product which has been around for quite some time, was always 10mg. I am not sure of the physics of the inhalator, but I would say that they are the nearest thing to an ecig. You insert a cartridge, which contains the nicotine, and suck and inhale on the device. You get a kick in the throat, and I assume that the contents are being vapourised. I use them on a plane, and they are quite effective, giving a fast hit, as the vapourised nicotine (no 'smoke' of course) enters the mouth and lungs.
Here is the best bit of info, remembering the EU directive on a maximum of 4mg for ecigs. The inhalator, which was always 10mg, has recently been increased. The cartridge for this NRT now contains 15mg nicotine.

Unknown said...

Lord Blencathra suggests that the amount of nicotine level is insufficient to keep smokers hooked on the electronic cigarette because it's to low, and eventually revert back to traditional tobacco fags. However, looking at it from another angle and quoting reports from Mintel, Electronic Cigarettes help nearly nine in ten people give up tobacco smoking and continue to quit all together. An electronic cigarette is a great alternative and they are available in different nicotine strenghts.