Belgium E-Cig Laws and Regulatory Environment

February 1, 2016

A Tale of Two Countries: E-Cig Regulations in Belgium v.s. The Netherlands

Laws regarding e-cigarettes and other tobacco alternatives can differ drastically even in countries right beside one another. In Belgium, the sale of e-cig hardware and liquids without nicotine is unregulated, but those with nicotine require a medical license to sell and purchase.

Citizens may import nicotine refills for personal use, but they may only legally buy from E.U. countries that permit those products such as The Netherlands and France. People in Belgium may not use e-cigs in places where smoking is prohibited regardless of their nicotine content. Unsurprisingly, there are very few Belgian vape shops since users usually buy their hardware and nicotine refills at the same time in other countries.

In 2007, former Belgian Minister of Health Laurette Onkelinx declared that nicotine-containing e-cigs and e-liquids should be regulated as medical drugs. This decision effectively made them illegal within the country as no e-cig manufacturer has been granted approval to sell their products in Belgian pharmacies. No legal challenge has been presented in Belgian courts, but cases in other parts of Europe suggest that judges would likely side with science and vapers over power-hungry government officials and the tobacco lobbyists who support them.

For example, next door in Holland, the situation is different. While government agencies have tried to medicalize e-cigs and nicotine refills, Dutch courts have resoundingly overturned those attempts. In their ruling, the Supreme Court in the Hague noted that scientific evidence suggests the pharmacological effect of an e-cig is as harmless as a cup of coffee. Nonetheless, lawmakers in The Netherlands continue to load burdensome regulations onto the industry such as packaging requirements, nicotine percentage limits and size restrictions on refills. The E.U.’s Tobacco Products Directive seeks to make these kinds of regulations the law of the land throughout all on the 28 member countries. To advocate for better laws in both nations, Belgian and Dutch e-cig activists have formed a group called Acvoda, which stands for Actie Comité voor Dampers, or “Action Committee for Vapers.”

Despite the harsh laws in Belgium, the country has produced some positive research regarding the public health benefits of making e-liquid containing nicotine available. In 2014, a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health by researchers from the University of Leuven-Belgium suggests that e-cigs with nicotine can help tobacco smokers kick the habit. A group of 48 tobacco users who expressed no interest in quitting were given e-cigs and nicotine cartridges, and their behavior was compared to a control group of smokers who did not use e-cigs. In the early stages of the study, e-cigs were found to reduce immediate cravings for cigarettes with the same efficiency as actually smoking a cigarette.

Two months after the study began, 34 percent of the e-cig users had given up tobacco products while everyone in the control group continued to smoke. At this point, the control group members were also given e-cigs. Three months later, 38 percent of the control group had successfully quit smoking. After five months, the researchers stopped providing subjects with nicotine refills but encouraged them to keep using e-cigs. Three months later, more than 10 percent of individuals who had quit smoking in each group relapsed.

Why did so many former smokers go back to their old ways? Since nicotine refills are illegal in Belgium, the participants were presumably unable to continue getting e-liquid containing nicotine, so they unfortunately fell back on the only available option.

The researchers drew two major conclusions from the study. First, e-cigs with nicotine can help smokers quit even if that’s not the reason they started using e-cigs in the first place. Second, restricting the public availability of e-liquids with nicotine causes people who would have quit smoking to remain stuck in their addiction.

Nonetheless, European governments continue to promote negative press about e-cigs. Given the growing evidence that these devices are safer than tobacco cigarettes and can even help smokers leave the deadly addiction, why do the myths persist?

Laws around vaping are clouded by politics. Government health officials in Belgium and other countries claim that restricting e-cig use protects the public, yet cigarettes continue to kill millions throughout the continent every year. It is no secret that
tobacco companies like Altria Group, spend millions of dollars every year on lobbyists to influence politicians for their benefit. Unfortunately, this is a battle that cannot be won by just facts and logic, so organized groups like Acvoda are essential to keeping the e-cig industry and their customers alive.