France E-Cig Laws and Regulatory Environment

July 1, 2015

E-Cigs Help French Smokers Quit, But the French Government Doesn’t Seem to Care

Few things are more French than smoking. It’s part of the culture, and, more importantly, it’s big business. According to Health Minister Marisol Touraine, 13 million adults smoke cigarettes habitually every day. 73,000 people die in France every year of smoking related illnesses, which Touraine noted is, “the equivalent of a plane crash every day with 200 people on board.” The problem isn’t contained to the adult population; youth under 16 are a substantial growing sector of the tobacco market.

The 2014 INPES Health Barometer reported that 400,000 French people have given up smoking tobacco thanks to the help of e-cigarettes. France has some of the more lax e-cig laws in Europe, but they may have to toughen up once the E.U.’s Tobacco Products Directive, or TPD, comes in to force in 2016. Nonetheless, the existing regulations are a little fishy and seem to benefit big tobacco companies at the expense of the e-cig market and, more importantly, at the expense of smokers’ health.

French law classifies most e-cigs and nicotine liquids as consumer goods, so they must meet the same safety standards set for any other product sold in stores. However, if an e-cig product is marketed as a tool for smoking cessation, it immediately becomes classified as a medication and is subject to much stricter regulations. This rule also applies if a cartridge contains 10mg or more of nicotine or if the nicotine strength is 20mg/ml or greater. Producers would then be required to apply for medical licensing, a process few e-cigs make it through.

To be fair, French health officials have made great efforts to combat the traditional tobacco industry. They have successfully imposed labeling restrictions and banned smoking in public places. Unfortunately, as is the case in many parts of the world right now, e-cigs are getting unfairly swept up in the controversy.

Health Minister Touraine has publicly stated that e-cigs are safer than traditional cigarettes, but she echoed the fears of many adults when she added, “For a young person who has never smoked, an electronic cigarette can become a way in to smoking.” Her assumptions are not based on any research, but she nonetheless has advocated for tighter restrictions on e-cig advertising and banning their use everywhere smoking tobacco is banned.

The e-cig market has been booming in France for years. It’s a 100 million euro industry, but that still pales in comparison to the tobacco industry. The French INPES Health Barometer revealed that e-cig users were primarily people who already smoked cigarettes, and many of them have left their tobacco addiction for good. Those e-cig users who continue to smoke tobacco cigarettes occasionally have reduced their cigarettes consumption by an average of nine cigarettes per day. E-cigs have clearly reduced smoking rates, and health officials have acknowledged that e-cigs are safer than cigarettes, yet e-cigs remain a target for lawmakers.

On an interesting side note, France is about to become one of the first countries in the world to legalize a cannabis-based e-cig. The device, called Kanavape, will vaporize cannabinoids found in hemp plants. Hemp doesn’t contain THC, the psychoactive chemical found in marijuana, but its cannabinoids have therapeutic effects including pain relief. It’s interesting that hemp is legally distinguished from marijuana even though they both come from cannabis, yet e-cigs are practically considered the same as cigarettes although e-cigs do contain tobacco. Could this be because there isn’t a multi-million dollar marijuana lobby to advocate for the strict regulation of hemp?

France has had a lot of success in curbing smoking rates thanks to government initiatives and the e-cig market. Unfortunately, popular media and government health campaigns continue to perpetuate the myth that e-cigs are equally as dangerous as tobacco. Why? The tobacco industry has huge political influence and regularly uses lobbyists to rig the system in their favor at the expense of a potential competitor in e-cigs. For example, tobacco company Altria, allegedly sent hundreds of lobbyists to visit E.U. lawmakers when the TPD was being revised. Also, don’t forget that tobacco taxes are a big chunk of government income, so the government has an interest in protecting big tobacco.

E-cig makers and users do not yet have the resources of “big tobacco” or “big pharma”, which is a shame since emerging research shows that e-cigs can help people move away from harmful tobacco products, have a significant public health impact and save lives. E-cig advocates are going to have to substantially raise their voices to get heard over the racket being perpetuated by the tobacco industry and their political supporters.