This country might soon be giving out e-cigarettes for free

August 19, 2015, 3:40 PM UTC
Photograph by Getty Images

Health officials in Britain have publicly endorsed e-cigarettes as an efficient and desirable way to reduce the health risks from smoking and to encourage smokers to kick the habit entirely.

Public Health England, which runs the National Health Service in the largest of the U.K.’s four nations, said that a review by independent experts had found e-cigarettes to be around 95% less harmful than smoking, and said popular perceptions that they were as harmful, or a gateway to more harmful cigarette smoking among younger users, were plain wrong.

The review is arguably the biggest official endorsement yet for the practise of ‘vaping’, and may hasten the speed at which smokers drop conventional cigarettes for e-cigs. By contrast, the World Health Organization had said in 2013 that the safety of e-cigarettes “has not been scientifically demonstrated.”

That could in turn increase the competition among traditional tobacco groups for the dwindling band of e-cigarette makers still in independent hands. Philip Morris International (PM), Lorillard Inc., British American Tobacco plc (BTI) and Imperial Tobacco plc (ITYBY) and others have all acquired makers of e-cigarettes since 2012 as an insurance policy against the trend of long-term decline in their traditional business.

“My reading of the evidence is that smokers who switch to vaping remove almost all the risks smoking poses to their health,” said Peter Hajek, a professor at Queen Mary University in London who authored the review.

In Britain, as elsewhere in the developed world, smoking is in decline thanks to changing in public attitudes, which have allowed government to raise tobacco taxes dramatically and drastically tighten the regulation of its marketing. In the last five years, the U.K. has raised the amount of tax on cigarette sales by 40%, while in April, it banned the display of traditional cigarettes in all retail outlets.

There are no official data yet on how the ban has affected sales.

However, Public Health England has all but explicitly blessed handing out e-cigarettes for free to those who sign up for the NHS’s Stop Smoking help services, on the reasoning that the cost will be more than recouped in public health benefits (smoking-related diseases are still the U.K.’s biggest killer).

By contrast, a pack of 20 traditional cigarettes now costs upwards of $14. The economic incentives for the U.K.’s remaining 2.6 million smokers to abandon traditional cigarettes sooner rather than later are only piling up. If other health services follow the U.K.’s lead, tobacco’s slow death in the west could get a lot faster.