BELGIUM: Vaping as dangerous as smoking? A big government mistake!

BELGIUM: Vaping as dangerous as smoking? A big government mistake!

The situation of vaping in Belgium is complex and it is not really new. In a forum offered by our colleagues from Dhnet, Frank Baeyens, professor of psychology at KU Leuven does not hesitate to put things in order explaining that " the Belgian government makes a big mistake by considering that e-cigarettes are as harmful as smoking" page (in French).


In a gallery, the professor of psychology at the KU Leuven, Frank Baeyens gives his opinion on the Belgian government's strategy to reduce smoking.

Franck Baeyens - Professor of psychology at KU Leuven

 For several years now, the number of smokers has hardly seemed to decrease in Belgium. The current anti-smoking policy does not seem to accelerate the trend either. However, if it really wants to bring down the number of smokers quickly, the Belgian government will have to dare to bet on an expanded strategy for the consumption of tobacco and nicotine products. Discouraging smokers is not enough because the most inveterate among them do not care. To make them change their minds, the government must dare to actively promote attractive alternatives, less harmful to health, or even promote electronic cigarettes. Maintaining a sanitary cordon around the consumption of nicotine, whatever its form, will not advance public health. On this anti-smoking day, let's focus on the main objective of the mission, which is to help people quit smoking, rather than making it an anti-smoking day.

Everyone knows that smoking is bad for your health. Everyone also knows that it is very difficult to break this habit, especially because of the addictive effects caused by nicotine. There are a multitude of ways to quit smoking. However, the new principle of “Tobacco Harm Reduction” (THR) is often a successful strategy. This principle consists of encouraging smokers to replace their cigarettes with nicotine products that present a proven low risk to health, such as electronic cigarettes, nicotine patches or nicotine substitutes. The aim of the method is to significantly and rapidly reduce the risk associated with the most harmful effects of smoking (such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, lung disease and psychological damage caused by stigma or discrimination). The rest is less important. The fact that people continue to use nicotine is certainly much less of a concern since it is much less harmful in itself.

For the principle of THR to generalize, people who want to quit smoking must be able to trust the safety of alternative nicotine products and consider these products as attractive alternatives. It is therefore essential to be able to communicate fair and correct information on the relative benefits and risks associated with these products. It is also essential to have a policy that is based on and reflects the factual differences in risks. Finally, it is up to the smokers thus informed to weigh the pros and cons and to opt, if they wish, for these alternative products.

Currently, the policy pursued by Belgium is relatively opposed to the principle of the THR. The Belgian legislator considers electronic cigarettes and other less harmful alternatives to be "similar to tobacco products" and has subjected them to the same strict restrictions, in particular with regard to advertising. The recent bills also go in this direction since they want the establishment of a neutral packaging for vaping products as well as specific labeling warning against their potential risks and they want to significantly limit the authorized flavors, even completely ban all flavors to allow only the taste of tobacco.

However, putting tobacco products and less harmful alternatives on the same level of legal and political equality is absolutely not a good thing. On the one hand, it reinforces the false impression that these two products are as harmful as each other. So why would smokers opt for electronic cigarettes if it is as harmful as traditional cigarettes or if it has no positive effect on their health? On the other hand, this type of restrictive policy does not encourage smokers to turn to electronic cigarettes. It is impossible to inform them about the positive aspects for health through advertising, the product is made less attractive - at least according to the plans of some - because of the ban on attractive aromas and packaging, vapers can only vape in the places provided for this purpose, and no product can be purchased on the internet. Predictable consequence: smokers continue to smoke, with all the negative effects that this has on their health.

A THR strategy aims to convince smokers who have failed to quit, or who do not wish to quit by opting for any type of nicotine product, to vape rather than smoke. Many people fear that the over-the-counter sale of electronic cigarettes with various flavors will attract a multitude of young non-smokers who would become addicted and who could then opt for the traditional cigarette. However, there is no indication to that effect, either in Belgium or in neighboring countries, and, contrary to the assertions of some, this is not the case either in the United States. Many young people try vaping once or a few times, but few choose to vape daily. And if, unfortunately, some continue, it is generally because they already smoked or had already smoked before.

We must also dare to ask the following question: is it so dramatic that young people start to vaping or continue to do so if the number of young smokers decreases considerably? In countries where vaping is on the rise, we are seeing an acceleration in the significant decline in the number of young people who smoke.

Finally, it would be presumptuous to say that a person started smoking after having started vaping because the electronic cigarette pushed him towards traditional tobacco products. But, it is true that people attracted to vaping will be quicker to turn to traditional cigarettes, whether they have already vaped or not.

Policymakers who want to link low-risk nicotine products with tobacco legislation are doing prevention for a hypothetical or virtual problem. In itself, it would not be so serious if it did not hamper the search for a solution to a real big problem: the slight regression of the percentage of +/- 20% of Belgian smokers and of the billion smokers on a scale. global. I therefore hope that in the future, the Health Commission will set about drawing up legislation which will give pride of place to the principle of HRT in the strategy to discourage smoking. “Classic smoking control” methods and strategies are helpful, but unfortunately for many smokers their effects are too weak and too late. "

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