Europe rejects strict e-cigarette law

The use of electronic cigarettes has skyrocketed on both sides of the Atlantic, raising concerns.
Charles Platiau/Reuters
The use of electronic cigarettes has skyrocketed on both sides of the Atlantic, raising concerns.

STRASBOURG, France — In a decision likely to resonate in the United States and in other countries struggling to get a grip on a galloping market for e-cigarettes, the European Parliament scrapped health officials’ proposals that the nicotine-delivery devices be tightly regulated as medicines. Instead, lawmakers endorsed on Tuesday a more permissive approach to their sale and use.

The use of electronic cigarettes, primarily by smokers looking for a way to kick their tobacco habit, has skyrocketed, with sales growing so fast that some Wall Street analysts predict the battery-powered devices could surpass cigarettes within a decade. But the products and their use have outrun any rules on either side of the Atlantic for regulating them.

Europe’s new rules for e-cigarettes, contained in a draft law known as the Tobacco Products Directive, fill a legal vacuum around the product. Some governments in Europe have tried to rigidly regulate and even ban e-cigarettes, but this has led to a flurry of often successful court actions by e-cigarette companies determined to defend their product.


In the United States, too, efforts by the Food and Drug Administration to devise e-cigarette rules have been tied up by industry litigation.

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The agency has said it intends to announce some form of regulations.

The industry is dominated by small operators who import lithium batteries, raw nicotine fluid, and other materials from low-cost production centers such as China. Instead of smoke from burning tobacco, users ingest the nicotine in the form of vapors from the heated fluid — an alternative to smoking commonly referred to as vaping.

These companies, supported by growing legions of e-cigarette users, had lobbied hard against medicinal regulation and on Tuesday welcomed the European Parliament vote as a victory for good health and good sense.

“This is a fantastic result for public health and the millions of smokers around Europe who are switching to e-cigarettes,” said Charles Hamshaw-Thomas, corporate affairs director of Britain’s biggest e-cigarette brand by sales volume, E-Lites.


But while exempting e-cigarettes from an onerous and potentially costly certification process required for drugs, an amendment to the Tobacco Products Directive approved by parliamentarians imposes tight restrictions on advertising and sponsorship. In these areas, e-cigarettes face the same restraints as regular cigarettes.

These restrictions helped calm concerns among some in the 600-member Parliament that, while perhaps helping older smokers kick their habit, e-cigarettes will introduce young Europeans to nicotine.

Before the vote, a parliamentarian from Sweden warned that “these e-cigarettes are not a path to giving up smoking but a gateway to starting.”

Chris Davies, a fervent supporter of e-cigarettes from Britain, dismissed such worries, denouncing proposals to put the devices in the same regulatory framework as drugs.

“You are missing the big picture — these are a potential game-changer in the fight against tobacco,” said Davies.