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Tobacco Or Medicinal Product? Europe Divided Over E-Cigarettes

  • Ron Synovitz
  • Rikard Jozwiak

BRUSSELS -- Should electronic cigarettes be regulated as tobacco products? Or are they medicinal devices that should only be sold in pharmacies?

That’s the debate brewing in Europe after a vote on October 8 by the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

As part of a legislative package aimed at discouraging young people from smoking tobacco, European lawmakers approved a draft law that would regulate the marketing of electronic cigarettes.

The bill still must be approved by the 28 European Union government leaders in the European Council.

The council recommended in June that e-cigarettes should be regulated as medicinal products that could help smokers quit – a step that would make the devices available only in pharmacies.

But after intense lobbying from the growing electronic-cigarette industry, which includes powerful global tobacco companies, the European Parliament refused to heed the council’s recommendation.

Instead, lawmakers in Strasbourg voted for the marketing of e-cigarettes to be regulated in the same way that tobacco marketing is regulated.

That means sales of e-cigarettes to children under 18 would be banned in the European Union, along with most advertising. Health-warning labels also would be required.

But the smokeless vaporizing devices and their nicotine cartridge refills could still be sold in tobacco shops and specialist stores.

What Comes Next?

The vote has set the stage for an e-cigarette tussle in Brussels. Will the council agree that e-cigarettes should be treated like tobacco? Or will the council continue to insist that e-cigarettes should be regulated as medicinal devices?

MEP Linda McAvan, a member of Britain’s Labour Party, will serve as the European Parliament’s rapporteur during negotiations on the issue with the European Council.

McAvan says all members of the European parliament agree that e-cigarettes cannot be unregulated on the market. The debate boils down to how they should be regulated.

McAvan says she is certain there is a basis for compromise with EU governments that insist on medicinal regulations.

"Obviously, [the European] parliament has got a position which is the opposite of that in the sense that it is to be not medicines," she says. "But at the same time, there are some common elements which are that there should be a regulatory framework. So I think we have to start a dialogue. It’s difficult to predict what my colleagues [in the European Parliament] would accept [and] what the governments [in the European Council] will accept. But we’ll start those negotiations quite soon."

Research shows that about 85 percent of e-cigarette users start because they want to wean themselves off the habit of smoking tobacco.

The devices vaporize liquid from cartridges that contain different amounts of nicotine, allowing users to gradually reduce their nicotine consumption.

E-cigarette consumers say they are “vaping,” rather than smoking.

Helpful Or Harmful?

"It is probably less harmful because it doesn't contain any byproducts from the burning of tobacco," one e-cigarette user in the Czech capital, Prague, told RFE/RL. "It's also cheaper. And it's not smoking. It is something completely different and it takes some getting used to. I have given up tobacco completely. I haven't smoked a cigarette for 18 months now. And I started smoking when I was 15, so it had been more than 40 years [of smoking]."

But Francesco Blasi, a professor of respiratory medicine at the University of Milan and the former president of the European Respiratory Society, told RFE/RL that e-cigarettes are still too new to be sure about the long-term health implications.

China's Hon Lik, inventor of the e-cigarette, tests his invention in Beijing.

China's Hon Lik, inventor of the e-cigarette, tests his invention in Beijing.

"We don’t have enough information about the safety of the use of e-cigarettes," Blasi said. "We have only short-term data about the efficacy of e-cigarettes in terms of quitting smoking. My feeling is that not going under the control of the European Medical Agency is a pity."

The latest study on e-cigarettes, published in September by Britain's medical journal "The Lancet" found no statistically significant difference between nicotine patches and e-cigarettes for those trying to quit smoking cigarettes.

The "Lancet" study did find that those who used e-cigarettes for six months smoked fewer cigarettes and refrained from a relapse longer.

Blasi says at least two more years of research is needed to start determining whether there are long-term health risks.

Lobbyists for the tobacco and e-cigarette industry have argued against limiting e-cigarette sales only to pharmacies. They say that would discourage use of the devices by people trying to quit smoking – pushing them back toward tobacco cigarettes again.

Dagmar Roth-Behrendt, an MEP from Germany, says tobacco industry lobbyists in Strasbourg thought they won a victory when lawmakers voted to regulate e-cigarette marketing as tobacco.

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"They obviously thought it was a victory when you saw them celebrating on the gallery for the visitors," Roth-Behrendt said. "It is not allowed to celebrate or applaud on the visitors' gallery – as it not allowed in any parliament in the world. And they were raising fists and jumping up and down. They think it is a victory. I do not know exactly if it is a victory."

Roth-Behrendt says the prohibitions on advertising and sales to minors, as well as warning label requirements, are setbacks for an industry that would prefer to continue marketing e-cigarettes without regulations.

Blasi says they also could encourage individual countries heed calls from groups like the British Medical Association to ban the use of e-cigarettes in public places.

Further research also could sway lawmakers to eventually classify e-cigarettes as medicinal devices.

One way or the other, the days of unregulated smokeless e-cigarettes will come to an end by whatever deal is reached in Brussels.

With additional reporting by RFE/RL’s Pavel Butorin in Prague
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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak covers the European Union and NATO for RFE/RL from his base in Brussels.​ Write to him at