UK E-Cig Laws and Regulatory Environment

July 21, 2015

The Ever Evolving Legalities of E-Cigs in the U.K.

The U.K. currently has some of the most comprehensive and successfully enforced e-cig laws and regulations in the world. E-cigs containing nicotine may be imported, sold and even advertised. However, these laws did not come about overnight and, while the U.K.’s current regulations are far from perfect and still in flux, good or bad, they might provide a forecast of what is to come in other European countries.

In the U.K., there are 17 statutes that regulate tobacco alternatives including e-liquid refill limits, labeling and packaging requirements and electrical safety standards. Most importantly, e-cig producers and distributors may not make any claims that their products have therapeutic value to tobacco smokers by providing a safer alternative to tobacco. Doing so would legally place e-cigs under the jurisdiction of the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, which, some have suggested, has a vested interest in banning e-cigs because they could potentially cut into the profits of pharmaceutical companies if consumers preferred e-cigs over seemingly less effective tobacco cessation products.

Back in 2010, the MHRA unsuccessfully tried to claim authority over the e-cig industry, but a higher government agency decided that the products should remain classified as consumer goods. At the end of 2012, the European Commission proposed medicinal regulations for e-cigs throughout the entire European Union, but the European Parliament in Strasbourg instead voted to treat e-cigs like tobacco products. This is where the E.U.’s TPD, or Tobacco Products Directive, clouds up the picture.

The TPD has set minimal standards for member states to update their tobacco laws and enforcement from May 2016, and article 20 of the TPD specifically spells out necessary regulations for tobacco alternatives like e-cigs. Interestingly, a U.K. based company, Totally Wicked, has recently won the right to challenge the TPD in E.U. courts in which they argued that article 20 introduces draconian measures unnecessarily infringing upon the rights of businesses within the E.U. The case is moving its way up the appellate chain and will likely be settled in the E.U.’s highest court.

When the European Commission initially suggested e-cigs should be medicalized, the MHRA enthusiastically announced that no e-cigs currently on the market would be eligible for licensing in the U.K. After the E.U. decided to regulate them as tobacco products, lawmakers were quick to load burdensome restrictions including labels containing scientific falsehoods and refill size-limits. It seems that whether e-cigs are legally considered medical devices or tobacco products is ultimately irrelevant; U.K. and E.U. government officials are determined to regulate the e-cig industry to death.

Speaking of death, tobacco smokers around the world continue to be trapped in a deadly cycle of addiction to a destructive habit. They lack safer and effective alternatives, yet the MHRA and many other government health agencies seem complacent with the tobacco industry profiting at the expense of public health. Why?

Tobacco and pharmaceutical profits translate into tax revenue, so both of those industries consequently have tremendous political clout. E-cigs could save the lives of people who want to quit smoking cigarettes, but that would also cut into government revenues. If the MHRA is serious about addressing the smoking epidemic in the U.K., they should embrace e-cigs and other, potentially less harmful, tobacco alternatives. Hopefully, common sense will continue to trump corporate interests in the court systems, so smokers who want products that provide a safer alternative to tobacco can have access to them.