In the not-too-distant future, doctors in the UK may be able to write prescriptions for vaping. This week, the government announced its intention to allow e-cigarette products to be prescribed as a cessation aid for smokers trying to quit traditional tobacco cigarettes. Though health officials acknowledge that these products aren’t risk-free, they’re hoping that greater access to vaping will help the country reach its goal of being smoke-free within the next decade.
Compared to the U.S., the UK and its public health experts have been far more positive about the possible benefits of e-cigarettes. In 2015, a report from Public Health England concluded that e-cigarettes were likely to be 95% safer than tobacco cigarettes. And subsequent reports have been similarly hopeful about the potential for these products to help smokers quit entirely or switch over to exclusively vaping by 2030.
One part of the plan laid out by the UK government is to medically license nicotine vaping products, which would allow them to be prescribed by doctors and covered through the National Health Service, the country’s single payer healthcare system. On Friday, the UK announced its health regulator would soon release the guidance needed for vaping companies to apply for such a license. Companies still need to go through the standard approval process that all drugs do, but once successful, their e-cigarettes would be available for any smoker via a doctor. All e-cigarettes in the country, prescription or not, are still illegal for those under 18.
“Opening the door to a licensed e-cigarette prescribed on the NHS has the potential to tackle the stark disparities in smoking rates across the country, helping people stop smoking wherever they live and whatever their background,” said Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid in a statement released Friday.
Australia has recently required residents to get a prescription before they can legally access nicotine vaping products, according to CNN, but there are no fully approved products there as of yet. So the UK may still end up being the first country to broadly offer e-cigarettes via prescription. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recently authorized the very first products to be sold on the market under its new regulations, though these aren’t considered medical treatments.
There remains a fierce scientific debate over the risks and benefits of vaping, as well as how much regulation these products need. While experts generally agree that they’re safer than tobacco cigarettes, some are less assured that any remaining risks, especially long-term, will be minimal. Others are worried that kids and teens are still uniquely vulnerable to becoming addicted to vaping, and that vaping while young will then make them more likely to become smokers. But other researchers worry that strict restrictions on vaping will only drive people to keep smoking or even increase rates in an area. In the U.S. at least, rates of teen vaping have declined in recent years.
According to the UK, there have been 231 reports of 618 adverse reactions tied to nicotine vaping products in the five years since they began tracking them. They’ve also documented three deaths likely linked to vaping, including one suspected to be a case of EVALI, the rare lung condition that’s been primarily tied to tainted cannabis vaping products sold on the black market. But measured against the well-known harms of tobacco, the UK’s latest verdict on e-cigarette safety still concludes that “the risk of adverse health effects from vaping products is expected to be much lower than from cigarettes.”