I’m proud we made sure vaping was available in UK, says behavioural insights boss David Halpern

Nudge unit founding director tells CSW that vaping has saved an estimated “million years of life” – but says the follow-through regulations have not been good enough
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By Tim Gibson

22 Aug 2023


Behavioural insights expert Professor David Halpern has told CSW one of his proudest achievements is turning around the government’s policy on vaping, to ensure it was available in the UK.

In a wide-ranging interview due to be published in the autumn, Halpern said e-cigarettes had saved an estimated “one million years of life” in the UK.

He said the UK had been “leading the charge” in Europe to get vaping banned. But he and former special adviser Rohan Silva took an e-cigarette to a meeting with then-cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood, as part of a campaign to reverse the government’s policy on the issue.

While Heywood was unimpressed by the clouds of “smoke” Silva blew in his direction after sampling the product, he was nonetheless a big supporter of vaping as a smoking cessation aid, according to Halpern.

Halpern told CSW that recent criticism of vaping on grounds of its popularity among children and teenagers shows the importance of “following through” on good policy. “Even if the starting policy is right, the detail matters and you have to keep working on it,” he said.

Data shows smokers are 60% more likely to have a successful quit attempt with vaping than with Nicotine Replacement Therapy such as patches, according to Halpern. He added that e-cigarettes are 95% better from a health perspective than normal smoking.

“But because there wasn’t tight enough regulation to ensure they weren’t available to kids, there has been a creeping undermining of the policy,” he argued. “There is now doubt in people’s minds, including many clinicians, that e-cigarettes are dangerous, or worse than smoking.”

Halpern said vaping was always intended as a tool to help smokers quit. To continue that trajectory, he believes prescription-grade e-cigarettes should be made available with diminishing dosages over time, to help wean smokers off more harmful cigarettes.

“Smoking is breathtakingly toxic,” he said. “Roughly half of health inequalities in Britain are accountable to smoking. But no company has brought an e-cigarette forward through the MHRA process.

“We expected to see stronger versions, more sophisticated versions, which you could gradually reduce the dosage of, which would be available for prescription. But they haven’t arrived. So e-cigarettes haven’t been available enough through the medical routes, which is the obvious place you want to intervene.”

Even so, Halpern reiterated his pride in his role in ensuring vaping was available in the UK. “I don’t have regrets about the origins of the policy on vaping. It was a really good policy and the UK was forward-thinking about that.

“But the follow-through hasn’t been good enough, nor has the refining of regulations over time as the market evolves.”

The full interview with Professor David Halpern will appear in the Autumn issue of CSW

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