Smokers could be given e-cigarettes for free on the NHS

By Ethan Shone
Friday, 29th October 2021, 9:14 am
E-cigarettes could be given to smokers for free on the NHS as part of new plans to help people quit (TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images))
E-cigarettes could be given to smokers for free on the NHS as part of new plans to help people quit (TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images))

England could become the first country in the world to offer e-cigarettes on prescription to smokers to help them quit, after the UK’s medicines regulator updated its guidance for quitting smoking.

The move has been welcomed by the Health Secretary Sajid Javid and the chief executive of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) who said “the evidence is clear” that they’re less harmful.

The MHRA has updated its guidance for people who want to quit smoking to allow e-cigarette manufacturers to submit their products for regulatory approval in the same way that other medicines available via the health service are.

Dr June Raine, chief executive of the MHRA, said: “The evidence is clear that e-cigarettes are less harmful to health than smoking tobacco and that nicotine-containing e-cigarettes can help people quit smoking for good.

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    “The updated guidance on licensing requirements we have published today is a strong first step towards availability of safe and effective licensed e-cigarette products.”

    This would mean that e-cigarettes approved for use by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) could be prescribed to patients as a treatment.

    64,000 smoking deaths in 2019

    E-cigarettes are currently regulated as consumer products, and while non-smokers and children are strongly advised against using them, the are proven to be less harmful than smoking.

    Health secretary Sajid Javid said: “Opening the door to a licensed e-cigarette prescribed on the NHS has the potential to tackle the stark disparities in smoking rates across the country, helping people stop smoking wherever they live and whatever their background.”

    The change has come about following a consultation with the E-Cigarette Expert Working Group, made up of UK experts who provided independent oversight and advice to the MHRA

    Almost 64,000 people died from smoking in England in 2019 while there are still around 6.1 million smokers in the nation, according to figures given by the Department for Health.

    Deborah Arnott, chief executive of health charity ASH, said smokers who are cautious about e-cigarettes might be more likely to try vaping if they had the reassurance provided by a medicines licence.

    “The MHRA guidance opens the door to a day when smokers can be prescribed e-cigarettes to improve their chances of successfully quitting,” she said.

    'Good evidence'

    Professor Nick Hopkinson, consultant physician at the Royal Brompton and medical director at Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, said: “Most of the people that I see in clinic have lung disease which is caused and worsened by smoking.

    “There is already good evidence that commercially available e-cigarettes enable people to switch away from smoking to a much safer alternative.

    “However, the development of medicinally licensed e-cigarettes would be a really important step forward, providing patients and healthcare professionals with an additional tool to break dependence on smoking, backed up by the reassurance that comes from a rigorous authorisation process.”

    A NHS spokesperson said: “The NHS can only prescribe e-cigarettes when Nice recommends them for use.”