In most developed countries, tobacco consumption is recognized as the single greatest cause of preventable illness and early death. In the UK, over a 100,000 deaths in 2010 were attributable to tobacco consumption with around 86% of lung cancer deaths linked to smoking. The UK has enacted tobacco regulation policies for years, adhered to various World Health Organization treaties on the subject of worldwide tobacco control, yet in 2009, around 10 million adults in Britain still smoked. It is estimated that one in two regular cigarette smokers will eventually be killed by their tobacco habit.
Since introduced in Britain a few years ago, electronic cigarettes have been a huge success. In fact, year after year, e-cig sales have increased exponentially as more smokers are turning to the electronic alternative. To date, the UK seems to be one of the most “vaping” friendly countries in the world where smokers may use the devices virtually anywhere. In fact, the British Cabinet’s Office’s Behavioral Insights Team (BIT), or the nudge unit as the year old high level group is called, strongly endorsed tobacco harm reduction in its first annual report. They want to encourage smokers to try electronic cigarettes: using “products that deliver nicotine quickly in a fine vapour instead of a harmful smoke could prove an effective substitute for conventional smoking,” states the report.
Despite the UK’s seemingly old-fashion antics, they are taking a surprisingly forward approach to tobacco harm reduction. The nudge unit’s report explains that “a review by the [British] Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency concludes that “nicotine, while addictive, is actually a very safe drug.’’ The report supports what numerous scientists and experts have long been saying: nicotine for recreational purposes isn’t necessarily dangerous however, like alcohol and caffeine, it has the propensity to become addictive. In the case of cigarettes, the nicotine and chemicals found in tobacco, along with the combustion gives way to a dangerous and deadly mix of over 4000 chemicals and carcinogens inhaled through the smoke. When isolated from other substances in tobacco, nicotine by itself isn’t nearly as toxic.
The British’s nudge unit isn’t encouraging the use of electronic cigarettes solely on their potential of being safer alternatives to cigarettes, they also assert that the behavioral attributes associated with the use of the devices is a major factor in their success as an effective replacement to smoking. “A tenet of behaviour change is that it is much easier to substitute a similar behaviour than to extinguish an entrenched habit. If more alternative and safe nicotine products can be developed which are attractive enough to substitute people away from traditional cigarettes, they could have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives a year.”
Ultimately, with their support of electronic cigarettes as an alternative to smoking, the goal of the British government is to save thousands of lives each year and to alleviate the cost of treating smoking-related diseases costing taxpayers £2.7 billion yearly. While the use of other nicotine replacement therapy products such as Chantix or nicotine patches is readily available, their success rate falls far behind that of e-cigs. “This positioning by such a high-level entity should significantly advance tobacco harm reduction initiatives on a global scale. U.S. regulatory authorities, in particular, should take note. For the British government, the challenge now is to translate concepts into practical applications – paving the way for other governments.”