England is on course to become the first country in the world to prescribe e-cigarettes, the U.K.’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) announced Friday, part of government efforts to cut smoking rates using a controversial tool it says is less harmful than smoking.
The MHRA Friday said it is inviting e-cigarette manufacturers to submit products to undergo the same evaluation and approval process as other medicines.
The regulator said e-cigarettes could be prescribed on the National Health Service in England to “help people stop smoking tobacco products.”
While not risk free—e-cigarettes contain nicotine and can still be harmful—the MHRA said expert reviews from the U.K. and U.S. have been “clear that the regulated e-cigarettes are less harmful than smoking.”
If approved for prescription by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice), England could be the first country in the world to prescribe e-cigarettes as a medical product.
Tobacco is the leading cause of death, illness and impoverishment around the world, according to the World Health Organization. All forms of tobacco are harmful and there is no safe level of exposure, the WHO said. The vast majority of tobacco users around the world smoke cigarettes. Rates across England are at record lows—there are around 6.1 million smokers, according to government figures—but uneven, with rates as high as 23% in some poorer areas.
E-cigarettes, sometimes called “vapes,” have divided experts, regulators and legislators. While the U.K. sees them as a useful aid to help people stop smoking, cutting down on some of the most harmful elements of tobacco smoke like tar and carbon monoxide, other countries like the U.S. are clamping down or banning their sale entirely (often while keeping traditional cigarettes available). Some e-cigarette products, especially flavored ones, have proved popular among American schoolchildren, according to numerous sets of research. One survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated around 2 million school pupils used them this year. In mid October, the Food and Drug Administration authorized its first e-cigarette product for use in the U.S., concluding the benefit to smoking adults wanting to quit outweighs the risks to teenagers.
7 million. That’s how many deaths a year are the direct result of tobacco use, according to the World Health Organization. A further 1.2 million die as a result of being exposed to second-hand smoke.