UK Health Officials: Smokers should vape instead (Update 7/9/2015)

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Hong Kong’s many British trained health practitioners will be shocked to find their counterparts in the UK are suggesting smokers should switch to e-cigarettes. Meanwhile, the former colony’s Food and Health Bureau looks to ban the product completely.

An expert independent evidence review published August 19 by Public Health England (PHE) concludes that e-cigarettes are significantly less harmful to health than conventional tobacco and have the potential to help smokers quit smoking. PHE is an operationally autonomous executive agency under, and sponsored by, the UK Department of Health.

The review, commissioned by PHE and led by Professor Ann McNeill (King’s College London) and Professor Peter Hajek (Queen Mary University of London), concluded that the current best estimate is that e-cigarettes are around 95% less harmful than smoking.

The review also suggests that e-cigarettes may be contributing to falling smoking rates among adults and young people in the UK, and that there is no evidence so far that e-cigarettes are acting as a route into smoking for children or non-smokers.

Not in our backyard

Earlier in May, the Food and Health Bureau (FHB) proposed to the Panel on Health Services a number of measures to strengthen tobacco control in Hong Kong that included a complete ban on e-cigarettes.

subsequent special hearing was held in LegCo on July 6th. Many health experts, including Professor Lam Tai-hing ( 林大慶), Director of HKU’s School of Public Health, and Professor Louis Shih Tai-cho ( 史泰祖), president of the Hong Kong Medical Association, strongly supported the Government’s efforts for a complete ban on e-cigarettes.

Professor Sophia Chan Shiu-chee ( 陳肇始), Under Secretary for Food and Health, has cited the WHO’s warning that research that suggesting e-cigarettes are a better alternative to conventional cigarettes were “inconclusive”.

Detractors of the invention have suggested the product could become a “gateway” for teenagers to cigarette smoking and renormalise the behaviour, undermining Hong Kong’s efforts to lower the smoking population.

Not risk-free, but less harmful

While the UK government-backed report admits e-cigarettes are not risk free, it has found it is a much less harmful alternative to smoking.

“E-cigarettes are not completely risk free but when compared to smoking, evidence shows they carry just a fraction of the harm,” said Professor Kevin Fenton, Director of Health and Wellbeing at Public Health England. “The problem is people increasingly think they are at least as harmful and this may be keeping millions of smokers from quitting.”

“The evidence consistently finds that e-cigarettes are another tool for stopping smoking and in my view smokers should try vaping and vapers should stop smoking entirely.” said Professor Ann McNeill, King’s College London and independent author of the review.

Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s expert in cancer prevention said, “Fears that e-cigarettes have made smoking seem normal again or even led to people taking up tobacco smoking are not so far being realised based on the evidence assessed by this important independent review. In fact, the overall evidence points to e-cigarettes actually helping people to give up smoking tobacco.”

Her claims contradict suggestions made by Hong Kong’s British trained elite health practitioners that e-cigarettes may renormalise smoking.

British connection

After graduating from HKU’s Faculty of Medicine, Professor Lam Tai-hing received an MSc degree in medical sociology and an MSc degree in occupational medicine in 1980 and ‘81, respectively, both from The University of London. Professor Sophia Chan holds a Master of Education degree from the University of Manchester, a Masters degree in Public Health from Harvard University and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from HKU. Dr. Louis Shih is a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and received a Masters degree in Clinical Dermatology from the University of London.

FHB unconvinced

Despite claims from its British counterpart, FHB remains unconvinced. In an official response to HT’s inquiries, a representative replied, “PHE’s report is among the many reviews conducted by various organizations to look into the effects of e-cigarettes. There are other studies showing the harm of e-cigarettes.”

Instead, the FHB has reiterated its confidence in the recommendations made from the 6th Meeting of Conference of Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (CoP6) held in Oct 2014. “We understand that there will be an updated report on e-cigarettes for CoP7 to be held some time in 2016. We will keep in view of the latest development and views and recommendations of WHO,” said the representative.

The representative did state that it would be willing to take the PHE report’s suggestion to make e-cigarettes available as a cessation device “in the event that certain e-cigarettes products are found to be suitable for use in smoking cessation purposes”.

PHE has stated, given the potential benefits as quitting aids, the body looks forward to e-cigarettes being regulated on the market and made available to smokers by UK’s National Health Service on prescription.

Liberal Party Survey

Meanwhile, the Liberal Par ty announced results to its survey on e-cigarettes in Hong Kong on August 29. Less than 7% of respondents indicated they have used e-cigarettes at least once in the past. In this group, more than 40% either thought e-cigarettes were a healthier alternative to conventional cigarettes or believed it would help them quit smoking.

(From L) Mr Fun Cheung, Mr Harris Yeung, and Mr Danny Ma present Liberal Party's survey results.
(From L) Mr Fun Cheung, Mr Harris Yeung, and Mr Danny Ma present Liberal Party’s survey results.

Harris Yeung (楊浩泉), Vice Chairperson of the party’s Youth Committee, believes the Government should regulate e-cigarettes, and not ban it. “We support regulating e-cigarettes over banning them outright. If e-cigarettes are less harmful compared to conventional cigarettes, then why should we ban the less harmful alternative and not cigarettes? This is something the Government really needs to consider.”

“They need to first define e-cigarettes. Is it a food or a drug? Then they need to regulate the product, which includes the device and the e-liquid. They should ensure the safety of the ingredients in the e-liquid and the electronics of the device.”

Fun Cheung ( 張景勛), a member of the Youth Committee, expressed the need to make selling e-cigarettes to the underaged illegal, sharing that he once saw a primary school student purchase a vaping device from a newspaper stand in Tsim Sha Tsui.

Mr Cheung and his fellow Liberal Party youth member Danny Ma ( 馬家駿), are currently in the process of setting up the Hong Kong Vape Association. “We hope to harness the strength of non-governmental groups to bring forth positive dialogue,” said Mr Yeung.

Hong Kong currently has a known smoking population of 10.7%.