Parliament Should Follow the Science in Processing the Tobacco Bill

The South African government has taken one step closer to enacting a law to regulate the sale and use of Electronic Nicotine and Non-Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENNDS) commonly referred to as vapour products. In December 2022, the Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill (TPEDSC) was sent to parliament for processing. The Department of Health (DoH) is due to brief the Portfolio Committee on Health on the contents of the bill and it is expected that the portfolio committee will call for public comments afterwards.

For the Vapour Products Association of South Africa (VPASA), this development is welcomed, as it has been a difficult five years for the vaping industry, from May 2018 when the bill was first released for public comments by DoH. For five years, the vaping industry had to contend with a DoH that was hostile and openly refused to engage on the merits of its proposals in relation to vaping. The only engagement the vaping industry had with the DoH was in 2021, during the Socio-Economic Impact Assessment (SEIA) consultations. Even then, it was due to the intervention of the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation (DPME).

The parliamentary process will afford the industry the opportunity to state its case to an audience that we hope will be neutral and base its outcomes on scientific evidence, not ideological dogma. There is ample evidence to support the finding that vaping is significantly less harmful than smoking and can aid in smoking cessation. Research from the UK Royal College of Physicians has found that vaping is far less harmful than combustible tobacco, further noting that the hazard to health arising from long-term vapour inhalation is unlikely to exceed 5% of the harm from combustible tobacco. Public Health England has also found that vaping is 95% less harmful than smoking. Updated evidence from the Cochrane Library has found high certainty that e-cigarettes containing nicotine could increase the number of people who stop smoking compared to Nicotine Replacement Therapies (NRT), such as nicotine gums and patches.

The above is not to say that vaping is not risk-free, as constantly argued by DoH and anti-tobacco lobbyists. However, vaping presents a significant breakthrough in tobacco control, and as opposed to regulating vaping and smoking in the same manner, as the DoH currently seeks to do, VPASA calls for the adoption of a risk-based regulatory framework that will ensure that vaping products are made widely accessible to adult smokers wishing to move to less harmful alternatives to tobacco products or quit smoking.

South Africa should take heed of best practices from other countries such as the United Kingdom on how to best regulate vaping. The UK has embraced vaping products as part of its tobacco control strategy and has registered positive results. A 2022 Smokefree GB survey by Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) found that smoking is becoming less popular in the UK. Data from the annual population survey found smoking prevalence among adults aged 18 and over in England declined from 20% to 14% between 2011 and 2019. The survey also found that one in five former smokers said they used a vape to help them quit, but more than half (56%) who are ex-smokers said they had been vaping for more than three years.

If Portfolio Committee on Health is split on the regulatory posture of the DoH and the stance of the industry on the best way to legislate vaping, it would be prudent for the Committee to take the route of the Australian parliament and call for an independent review of the available evidence of the health impacts of vaping and a review of the regulations around the world.  

There are thousands of long-term smokers who have been unable to quit smoking and South Africa should not miss the opportunity to save those people’s lives by making widely available less harmful tools such as ENDS. There is evidence from around the world that prohibition does not work and that is the words that stay with the Portfolio Committee in their processing of the bill, particularly as it pertains to vaping.