Disagreements among British pharmacists over whether to sell e-cigarettes, and who to, have been further highlighted this week by a survey showing that a substantial minority would support making the products available to under-18s.
The poll of 168 pharmacists, conducted by the specialist publication Chemist and Druggist, found that 24% believe young people should be allowed to use e-cigarettes as an alternative to tobacco.
It comes shortly after another survey, this one run by the Trading Standards Institute (TSI), revealed that a large majority of independent pharmacies, and nearly half of national pharmacy chains, sold e-cigarettes to undercover buyers aged between 13 and 17.
It is not illegal for minors to buy or be sold e-cigs in Britain, although most suppliers stipulate that their products are for adults only.
A February parliamentary vote gave the government the right to restrict sales to under-18s in England, as with tobacco cigarettes, but this option has not yet been exercised. Nor will the European revised Tobacco Products Directive (TPD), due to be implemented in domestic British legislation in 2016, require a minimum age.
The pharmacists’ professional body the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) is strongly opposed to its members selling non-pharmaceutical e-cigs, but many of them differ. Earlier this year John D’Arcy, managing director of the pharmacy chain Numark (unconnected with the Altria subsidiary of similar name), said: “Our view is there is a huge demand out there. Some people are using e-cigarettes as a means of transferring from ordinary cigarettes and that, on one level, has to be safer than smoking. It seems to me that pharmacy has a place in this.”
Around that time, another poll for Chemist and Druggist suggested that about 40 percent of pharmacy professionals supported stocking them.
What This Means: The lack of consensus among pharmacists not only reflects the wider uncertainty about e-cigs’ impacts on both individual and public health.
It also demonstrates the confusion that can arise when there is an implicit age issue but no explicit rule – one community pharmacist was quoted as saying “clarity and decisiveness is what is required; give us guidance we can actually use” – and highlights the sometimes conflicting twin pressures on pharmacists, as both retailers and healthcare professionals.
More broadly, the question of whether it is right to prevent minors from buying e-cigs – since some of them smoke, and may therefore be entitled to the same help with smoking cessation as adults – was raised at the recent Global Forum on Nicotine in Warsaw by the e-cig public health blogger and gadfly Clive Bates.
That is hardly going to be a popular argument with those who see the e-cigarette industry as the latest guise of the Evil Nick O’Teen, but it is a reminder that even the apparently simple regulatory questions in this sector are rarely that straightforward.
– Barnaby Page ECigIntelligence staff