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NNA associates attended a debate at London South Bank University on Tuesday evening entitled “A way forward – How e-cigarettes could and should affect public health” which, sadly, only resulted in conveying an entirely misleading message to the approximately 50 people in the auditorium along with many more who logged on to watch a live stream of the event on Facebook.

Unfortunately, most of the panel did public health a significant disservice by repeating almost all the ill-informed canards that their more enlightened colleagues have sought to dispel over the past few years about vaping.

A photo from the LSBU debate.

For example, Faculty of Public Health board member Patrick Saunders began the evening stating confidently that there is evidence that e-cigarettes inhibit smoking cessation rather than help smokers switch to vaping – which is quite wrong - and followed up later by dramatically declaring e-cigarettes to be “designed to mimic smoking, are intended to mimic smoking” with no recognition that this might be a positive attraction for smokers wishing to quit. He also said that it was “encouraging to see most places ban smoking and vaping” without a care that Public Health England has rightly identified the public health advantages of vaping being permitted where smoking isn’t.

Professor Andy Parrott of Swansea University – when not advocating for public information films showing tumours and gore to be shown on CBeebies – added that “nicotine is the ideal training drug for addiction” leading to addiction to harder drugs; an idea entirely unsupported by any science, and said that he would recommend nicotine patches over e-cigarettes despite research proving the latter to be more effective.

Dr Helen Walters of the National Institute of Health Research, while mildly supportive of vaping, also appeared to be singing from the vape-sceptic hymn sheet by declaring that she was happy that evidence shows e-cigarettes not to be a gateway into smoking for children in the UK, but that it is a different situation in the US despite youth smoking rates plummeting across the Atlantic too.

It was quite clear that some panellists possessed scant knowledge of the research conducted on e-cigarette health effects and usage, while in amongst all this was Professor Peter Hajek attempting to share the real evidence but being largely ignored in favour of falsehoods spread by other ‘experts’ on the panel.
If that was disappointing, it only deteriorated further once discussion was opened to the floor. One by one all the lazy myths about vaping came tumbling out, and there was precious little pushback from the panel to correct them.

The oft-repeated misconception was advanced that a former smoker used his vaping equipment far more often – thereby implying he was self-administering more harm - without anyone pointing out that e-cigarette nicotine delivery is more dilute and tempered compared with smoking so this is a normal occurrence. Public health officers were forthright in condemning e-cigarettes for “substituting one addiction for another” without being educated that nicotine is on a par with caffeine, while another public health professional asserted boldly that “nicotine doesn’t break any kind of habit”, which any e-cigarette user will be able to tell you is not the case.

As for the idea that people might actually enjoy using nicotine and that the safer it is delivered, the better, the wholly clinical approach to the subject matter meant that the very premise was not up for discussion. Although it is encouraging that a London university decided to schedule an event on vaping, it was not so much a debate as a kangaroo court whereby vapers were offered no real defence.

If these misconceptions are to be addressed, and assuming the public health community truly wants to properly understand the attraction of vaping and its potential for public health, it is essential that this kind of event includes people who can do exactly that. Not, as was the case on Tuesday, in the audience with the chance of a minute or two at most to counter the untruths, but on the panel with a microphone given equal prominence and respect. The NNA can boast dozens of citizen experts who are qualified by their experience to talk about the subject and who are far more knowledgeable than many of those on display at South Bank University.

If those entrusted with advising parliamentarians and policy-makers wish to make a positive contribution to public health in the UK, they simply cannot preach ignorantly from their privileged pulpit like this. On Tuesday, they sent a cohort of local authority public health officers and interested students out into the chilly London air with negative, incorrect and evidence-free opinions about vaping to share with their friends and colleagues. They had been informed by ‘experts’, after all.

The way this event was structured may have been well-meaning, but in practice it has caused harm by effectively disparaging a technology which carries huge beneficial potential for population health in the UK and beyond. Health debates like this must include consumer advocates to offer a differing – and informed – view in the future; to not do so is nothing short of ideological public health vandalism.